The premise is that downtown Oak Park is broken and therefore in dire need of repair. This premise served as the implicit charge placed in front of the Downtown Oak Park Plan Steering Committee by the village board a few months ago. Since the accuracy of the Steering Committee’s recommended master plan is dependent upon the veracity of the premise, it is reasonable to ask whether this presumption is correct.

In terms of physical planning, downtown Oak Park has been planned exceptionally well and serves as an exemplar model for community planning. The recent New Urbanism movement is based on the same traditional planning principles that were intuitively employed in the development of our downtown area more than a century ago. The downtown area has historically been developed as a dense, pedestrian-friendly, transit-oriented district, with a unique sense of place. These time-tested principles serve as the genetic code for downtown Oak Park.

It’s only when downtown planning has deviated from these principles that adverse consequences have resulted. The well-intentioned, but ill-fated malling of Lake Street in the ’70s is an obvious example.

The market strength of downtown Oak Park is in excellent shape as well, as confirmed by village consultant Business Districts, Inc. in their market analysis report to the Steering Committee. Due to the area’s population density and disposable income, downtown Oak Park is located within one of the strongest retail demographics in the region.

That being said, it is obvious that downtown Oak Park has unrealized potential, and something is definitely ‘broken’ in regards to the lack of retail vitality and underutilized public spaces. So if not physical planning, what is the reason for this unrealized market potential?

For what ails downtown, I suggest we look at operations and management. Like anything else, after decades of neglect, deferred maintenance and public infrastructure disinvestment, the downtown area is showing its age. Coupled with an atmosphere of uncertainty and divisiveness from years of stalled master plans, retail tenants have not renewed long-term leases and property investment has floundered as a result.

Despite over $80 million in expended TIF funds since 1983, there is little evidence of TIF expenditures for the Marion Street mall and Westgate. One only has to stand at the intersection of Marion and Westgate to find themselves in a land that time forgot. While the mall has the potential to be the great public space that downtown currently lacks, it has not been improved since its original construction in 1974. Obvious signs of deterioration abound here and throughout the downtown, as evidenced by cracked pavement, remnant street furniture from the ’70s, and outdated storefronts.

This is neglect, not obsolescence. The difference between these terms is critical, as their meaning has been blurred by those seeking change via demolition and replacement.

Oak Park has a sound and rational planning and development policy, as articulated by its comprehensive plan and enforced by its zoning ordinance. Unfortunately, this policy has been compromised by the misuse of tax increment financing (TIF). To meet the statutory requirements for the 12-year TIF downtown extension approved last year, the village was required to create a TIF redevelopment plan, describing how “old and obsolete” downtown buildings were to be eliminated and replaced with TIF-funded redevelopment. Hence, the Crandall Arambula master plan was created, which was represented to the public as an authentic master plan process. In actuality, it was nothing more than a TIF checklist item required by law to justify the tax increment financial investment of property taxes being diverted from the public schools and other local taxing bodies until 2018.

As with many publicly financed programs, the 22 years spent at the TIF trough has resulted in a downtown welfare culture that has become intent on simply chasing TIF dollars. Imaginative and resourceful development appears to be the only thing obsolete in downtown Oak Park. This was exemplified by the unwarranted $8-12 million village subsidy for the Whiteco project.

The Steering Committee’s downtown master plan is essentially the same as the TIF redevelopment plan, as both were based on the same broken premise that the current downtown area is of little value, relative to the massive amount of proposed TIF-funded redevelopment. Any intervention as radical as the bricks-and-mortar master plan being recommended by the Steering Committee is simply unwarranted.

In conclusion, it would appear the current problems facing downtown Oak Park do not require costly bricks-and-mortar solutions, but rather a “teardown and replacement” of an obsolete and ineffective downtown culture. The essential ingredients for a vital downtown?#34;policy, planning and market strength?#34;are already in place. What is needed is a restored culture of place that inspires local entrepreneurship, promotes creative and imaginative retail management, provides stewardship of our cultural and historic heritage, and instills confidence and certainty in our unique downtown.

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