Backing out of Whiteco needs backing up

Opinion

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The NLP-dominated village board last week, in a 5-2 vote, refused to give the go-ahead to begin construction on the downtown parking garage addition that is also the first phase of the Whiteco/Trader Joe's project. The construction was to be "fast-tracked" so that downtown Oak Park would have additional parking for this year's holiday season.

Among the arguments given were that downtown doesn't have a parking shortage, Whiteco has hired a different architect for subsequent phases of the project, and the meaning of Christmas shouldn't be about dollars.

If those rationales sound less than convincing, it's because the real reason for the no vote was the NLP trustees' now explicit strategy of delaying the Whiteco project while they try to find a way out of the development agreement (which is an enforceable contract) and, in the process, try to frustrate Whiteco into throwing in the towel and accepting some kind of settlement.

If that runs into the millions of dollars, well, they'll argue, it's just the fault of the previous board's poor decision. Killing the project would also require abolishing the downtown TIF district to pay the schools the money they would have received from the Whiteco project. (As a result, the schools would receive an initial injection of money, but without the TIF, generating development downtown may become more difficult and the schools could end up worse off over the long run.)

Regardless of varying opinions on Whiteco, to break the redevelopment contract at this stage is a very serious step that shouldn't be undertaken without full consideration of the financial ramifications to the village. And therein lies the rub.

The pro-Whiteco side has relied on financial projections from village staff. Opponents charge that those numbers are overly optimistic and perhaps tainted because village staff either didn't do the analysis correctly or wanted to spin the project in a positive way to please trustees who had already signaled their support. I find those charges implausible.

Village staff may not always be exactly right?#34;much of their analyses, after all, really are educated guesses about policy outcomes?#34;but they are professionals with reputations to protect, so they don't have any incentive to cook the numbers. Nor did the former trustees have reason to pre-judge Whiteco without sound financial projections. They are well-intended people committed to the well being of this village.

On the other side, the NLP relied on, and its recently-elected trustees continue to rely on, the financial projections of local self-appointed experts who were already opposed to the project for other reasons?#34;too dense, too ugly, too close to their homes. I'm not saying these folks are not well-intended people who don't know anything about finance; I'm saying they began their analyses with a clear bias against the project and they lack the professional credentials and experience for policymakers to rely on them to evaluate a project like this.

Therefore, before this board takes us into the legal minefield of backing out of the Whiteco agreement, why not do this? Hire an independent professional who has experience evaluating public-private partnerships in real estate developments to come in and re-evaluate the project, and then agree to use this evaluation as the basis for the discussion over whether it is worthwhile to back out of the project at this stage. Appoint a blue-ribbon panel of three citizens to select the independent professional and to provide a report back to the trustees in a timely manner.

The village deserves a careful rational look at numbers that no one can argue are biased. If those numbers are as bad as the NLP trustees have been saying they are, then perhaps it is best to try to kill the deal. If the numbers come out looking more reasonable, then perhaps it is best for the new majority on the board to let the deal go forward.

In so doing, the new trustees wouldn't have to change their determination to try to do development differently in the future.

Jon Hale

Oak Park

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