In rejecting garage expansion, village board is spitting on small business

Opinion

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As both residents of downtown Oak Park and owners of The Book Table, we were distressed to hear that the village board voted down the extension of the Holley Court garage. Though it may be true that there are certain times of day when you can find empty public parking spaces Downtown, the loss of the Bank One lots is a huge blow.

Study after study has shown that the reason strip malls are so successful is people prefer to have the store they are going to in a direct line of sight from their parking space.

We opened up in Downtown because we think communities should embrace their diversity as opposed to embracing yet another strip mall filled with the same chain stores as the rest of the country.

Unfortunately, Oak Park is headed in the opposite direction. The Shops of Downtown possesses the bulk of open air spaces Downtown. There you can find the same chain stores that you find everywhere else. The stores that will be hurt from not having enough convenient parking are the small businesses, many owned by Oak Park residents.

We are huge fans of social engineering and truly believe government can do a lot of good by encouraging positive behavior. But it is completely unreasonable to posit that the independent retail that exists Downtown could survive with the number of customers that would be willing to walk, bike or take public transportation. The infrastructure is not in place for this sort of change. If the village is not willing to build that infrastructure, it's somewhat surprising that the board would think people would change their behavior based on just being asked nicely, especially when numerous other places within easy driving distance do provide the amenities such as the adequate parking that today's customers demand.

We are fully aware that our decision to open in a suburban downtown setting means parking will always be an issue. However, the situation has changed dramatically since we opened our store. The Bank One surface lot is gone, as is the surface lot in the middle of the RSC development. Our one-a-day parking complaint from customers has increased tenfold.

We understand it was a different board that gave continual assurances that the extension would happen before the Christmas season, but nonetheless, these are assurances that have been passed on to the citizens of Oak Park. We also urge some finalization of the long-discussed parking lot on North Boulevard.

Regarding Trustee Baker's comment that Mike Fox sounds like a child, this is completely inappropriate and utterly insulting.

There seems to be a huge misunderstanding as to what the organization, Downtown Oak Park (DTOP), is. When Fox speaks, he speaks as a representative of DTOP. Directly, he speaks for a board of directors that consists of six independent retailers; one African American female representative of an independently owned chain that has been an Oak Park fixture for decades; one architect known for his work in historic preservation; and two property owners, including Mike Fox himself. Indirectly, Fox and DTOP mostly speak for the independent retailers. Therefore, when a trustee insults Mike Fox, or sits by when Mike Fox is being insulted, they are not just insulting the man, they are insulting every mom and pop business Downtown.

Fox is somebody who rents mostly to independent businesses. Even the franchises he rents to are owned by Oak Park residents like Ben & Jerry's, which is owned by an African American couple (and we all know we need more minority ownership of businesses in downtown, but Fox is actually doing something about it rather than just talking).

Watching the board lecture about progressive values and diversity and then spitting on a man like Fox or a group of independent businesses like the ones in Downtown is like watching George Bush call an initiative Clear Skies when that very initiative actually helps destroy our environment.

Perhaps it would be better if this board would listen and help the people who are actually working for progressive ideals and diversity everyday instead of just mouthing out slogans.

There were also some disparaging remarks made by the board towards retailers regarding their concerns for the upcoming Christmas season. As retailers, we are accustomed to being treated by the rest of the world as somehow less worthy of respect than those that wear a suit and tie everyday, but we are not accustomed to having our very livelihood dismissed by our own government. We are a husband and wife trying to pay our bills through our chosen profession. And Christmas is largely what pays those bills.

So unless the board is prepared for a mass exodus of retailers Downtown, we suggest they at least pretend to listen to those retailers rather than treat them like second class citizens.

We hope that campaign rhetoric regarding support for small business wasn't just talk. From where we are sitting right now, the only businesses not adversely affected by the decision to halt the garage extension are the chains.

It does not surprise us when other communities side with multinational corporations instead of small independent businesses, but it does surprise us when Oak Park takes this stand. We can only assume a Walmart is next.

Jason Smith and Rachel Weaver
Oak Park

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