By Dan Haley
Monday evening, the Oak Park village board reviewed the 2005 Downtown Oak Park master plan. This a week after the board had agreed to plunk down a million bucks in scarce TIF funds to buy a building on Westgate that it deemed "strategic" enough to overpay for.
My real estate calculus is simple: This building sold for a million dollars in 2007, the blowsiest moment of the whole infernal bubble. Four years later, that building cannot be worth the same $1 million. Nothing is worth what it was worth in 2007. Our village just paid a whole lot for "strategic."
My history lesson is also simple. The village, like most government entities, has overpaid for virtually every parcel of strategic land it has ever purchased. I like government, so I'm not going all Ron Paul on you at this late date.
How did the village board conclude last week that 1133 Westgate was strategic when it didn't review the master plan until this week? Obviously the board thinks it needs this newest crown jewel as part of a yet-to-be-revealed, yet-to-be-created development(s) that also includes the Colt parking lot and the other surface parking lots that sit between Lake Street and North Boulevard. These are all parcels the village has paid millions to acquire. References were made Monday that the retail development that will eventually somehow come to the Lake Street frontage would also include public parking.
Yet Monday evening, in what was at best a cursory and self-congratulatory review of the 2005 plan, two trustees and the village president all said plainly that the 3,000 additional parking spaces envisioned in the plan over a 20-year period were too many. Trustee John Hedges referenced a "new economy" in questioning the added parking. Trustee Ray Johnson said the village had to "change the mindset" of Oak Parkers to induce them to walk, bike or take the el to downtown, then suggested Oak Parkers "always say we need more parking." Village President David Pope said directly that downtown doesn't need 3,000 more parking spaces.
But it needs to own another building?
Village Planner Craig Failor and Business Services Manager Loretta Daly both nodded yes Monday night when asked to confirm that "term sheets" were forthcoming this year from "preferred developers" for the Colt site on Lake Street and the large property at the corner of South Boulevard and Harlem. A "term sheet," I'd say, is something better than a nod but less than a shovel in the ground. There was talk that the apartment tower at Lake and Forest could begin construction a year from now.
We shall see. The economy continues to suffer. Private capital is harder to assemble than government purchased parcels.
The powers that be need to accept that there is earned skepticism about their development acumen. Critics need to accept responsibility for their past elected officials having queered a deal that would have launched a wave of positive development across the downtown by Seymour Taxman back in the heady pre-collapse days.
It is troubling that when Hedges asked for a list of factors that might have changed since the 2005 plan was adopted that no economic analysis was offered, no mention of online retail was made, that the possibility of fewer expensive parking spaces wasn't raised, that the timing of the end of the TIF wasn't factored in.
It still feels as if we are stumbling forward in difficult times when wins are going to be hard won.