There was a lot to like about last week's forum held by Anan Abu-Taleb, Oak Park's village president, and Trustee Bob Tucker. Even some typically critical village board members who sat in on the event were enthused about the turnout, the format and the president's performance.
What's not to like about gathering a hundred engaged citizens and listening, mainly, to what is on their minds? Away from the council chambers and its necessarily structured three-minute limits on public comments and then the muted responses from officials to those comments, the forum at the library was free-wheeling and, if you are a public policy wonk, even fun.
There was news made. An ownership change is likely coming to the privately-owned parcel at Forest and Lake and with it likely an intense dance over the currently OK'd plan for a 20-story tower on the site. There were familiar issues raised — traffic, trees, vacant storefronts, the living-wage debate. There were a few surprises — alleged discrimination against owners of tiny dogs by condo associations.
But here, to us, was the takeaway: In a room largely filled with people enthused about Abu-Taleb's election, some number of them traditionally aligned against notable development projects for the village, the village president was direct and passionate in arguing both for more development and for accelerating the processes leading to such development. Oak Park needs to be open-minded and welcoming to development, he said. "We need to change the mindsets, need to change how we do development here," said Abu-Taleb. Development brings jobs, vitality and is essential to holding down tax increases, said the village president.
And while some might see that as a challenge to the village government's sometimes plodding ways in reviewing and approving projects, we see it as a more direct challenge to those who are suspicious of a high-rise at Lake and Forest, who prefer a parking lot to a major development at the Colt site on Lake Street.
We have long agreed with Abu-Taleb's views on development. Now we are enthused about his willingness to be plain-spoken and persuasive in making the case.
We look forward to the next public forum in October. And our vote would be to continue the same format. The president and a single rotating trustee, listening more than talking, and with a skilled facilitator such as Julie Samuels moving the conversation and teasing out audience reaction on an array of topics.