We need a month's moratorium on Albion proposal

Opinion: Columns

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By Robert Kleps

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This is an open letter to the mayor, Oak Park Board of Trustees and plan commissioners who have a difficult job under intense scrutiny. Your duty is to determine if the Albion proposal would be a positive contribution or detriment for the village of Oak Park and its residents. If commissioners approve, then final approval by the trustees would permit this fundamental alteration of our downtown appearance and utility.

The Albion 18-story building's design and location was determined by the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation (EDC), working with the developer of their choice in private negotiations. EDC meetings are not open, nor are their minutes available. The EDC makes the major decisions. The development's design is then sent to the Plan Commission for adjustments and consideration by its experts in architecture, engineering, city planning and realty, plus citizen appointees.

I listened to Albion's nice presentation for an 18-story building affecting Austin Gardens, resident comments in favor, and our mayor's forceful support for this development. All have said that we need more high-rise buildings in Oak Park in order to increase our tax base and have a thriving business community.

Albion and other developers have adopted the mantra that more high-rises will increase tax revenues for Oak Park which is true, but they do not address the fact that with more residents, more services are required in police and fire protection, infrastructure costs, parking requirements, traffic congestion and, very importantly, schooling costs.

The mayor, trustees, and Plan Commission members have all said that their decisions must be fact- and data-driven. This administration has had four years to demonstrate and document that having more density through high-rises results in a worthwhile benefit.

Where is the evidence? Have expenditures gone up? Yes. Has traffic congestion gone down? No. Have taxes from the high-rise developers at least held our taxes to previous levels? No. 

District 97 needed more money to accommodate the increased number of students brought in. The 21-story Vantage building on Lake Street has 33 students in our systems. Albion said their 18-story building will supply only 11 students. I simply don't believe it. The Vantage comparison is more credible than their computer-generated speculation.

Albion and our mayor believe that driver-less cars in 15 years will eliminate our need for parking spaces downtown. Where will these cars park, in limbo? Traffic studies have proved that more cars generate more congestion. Driver-less cars will improve and be available in 15 years or less, but what do we do in the interim?

The first requirement of a good high-rise developer is to have an enthusiastic and optimistic sales pitch that will attract support from influential members of a community. Our mayor agrees with Albion and explained his desire to increase the density of Oak Park in the following quotes from the village board meeting of June 19: "Today retail is moving online rapidly." "Residential is the new retail." "Our downtown market has matured." "We do better when we are focused on data and facts." I totally agree with the last statement.

The trustees and plan commissioners were handed six research articles from prestigious economic journals. These studies included hundreds of towns, villages and counties. Each study documented that increasing population density did not benefit the community and resulted in higher taxes.

To improve our local businesses, we don't need more residents; we need more customers. Our Farmers Market attracts people from outside our borders. Why hasn't this administration worked more closely with our local business community, especially since Oak Park now requires an increase in their minimum wage? Why can't the village assist with web services and promote our great shops, services, and restaurants to attract more customers to Oak Park? The village provides available locations and assistance for high-rise developers. Why not directly help our businesses? They pay taxes too. What our businesses really need is more available parking.

I ask our mayor to supply and discuss the academic and municipal studies documenting that more residents benefit the residential and business community. Let us look at the economic benefits of the high-rises currently being completed and listen to those who do not believe that more tall buildings add to the character and vitality of Oak Park.

I suggest that the village not reject high-rise proposals in the pipeline, but have a month-long moratorium on approvals until we can see the mayor's facts and data on which his administration bases this long-lasting decision. 

The mayor said, "The downtown market has matured," and thus will remain attractive to developers. This moratorium will provide a cooling off period for the over 3,000 residents who have already signed petitions to stop the proposed Albion project negatively affecting people and Austin Gardens. This would allow for far less contentious Plan Commission meetings as the mayor's data and facts and resident's opinions are discussed without an intense time pressure. 

Albion's proposal was submitted seven months ago. Another month would allow for thoughtful and civil discussions.

Robert Kleps is a resident of Oak Park.

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