My name is Willis Johnson, and I am the owner of the Lake Theatre. I have been involved in the revitalization of Downtown Oak Park since 1981, when my company, Tivoli Enterprises, purchased the building and began its renovation. I am proud of the role that the theater has played on Lake Street through the years. I want to be here for many years to come, and to see an even more vibrant downtown.

But I’m not sure we’re going to get there.

By the end of the Crandall Arambula planning process and Whiteco, I had become discouraged by the negativism that was exhibited at virtually every meeting.

I decided that, since I was as rich as Seymour Taxman?#34;to quote the always malcontented Paul Hamer-?#34;I don’t need to spend any more evenings listening to the same negative rhetoric from the same people, whose motives continue to baffle me.

But with what I’ve been hearing lately, I’m afraid.

Where are we today?


The Crandall Arambula plan is considered “no good” because they didn’t really get the pulse of the community, it’s said?#34;despite all the meetings both small and large.

Then we needed to throw out the Downtown Oak Park organization, which the building owners and merchants fund, and bring in Main Street because they know what Oak Park needs. After all, why listen to the people whose livelihoods depend on the Downtown Oak Park area? They’re just a bunch of whiners anyway.

Then the village board, living up to your campaign promise, appoints a “Downtown Oak Park Sub-Area Steering Committee” made up of concerned, knowledgeable, volunteers to formulate a plan for the superblock.

Except, lo and behold, their recommendations aren’t what you really wanted or expected, so now you’ll try again.

Who really determines when the “Open Planning Process” is open enough to satisfy whoever has to be satisfied?

From a development standpoint, Oak Park is becoming a joke. It will be interesting to see how many developers specializing in historic buildings come forward, especially without their hands out.

In the meantime I, for one, am getting tired of the money continuing to flow out with very little return. My real estate taxes are already in the $10/sq. ft. range. Now you are proposing to buy our Taxman’s Colt building.

Who is going to fund that?

Taxpayers, of course … both those of us who are commercial taxpayers and those in the audience who are residential taxpayers.

Like it or not, our society is, in reality, “car-centric.”

Transit-oriented development is vital. But if we want to draw sales tax dollars from neighboring communities and from residents of Oak Park who can’t, or don’t, want to walk to the downtown, we need parking.

Some of you on the board say you’re tired of hearing Mike Fox ask for more parking? But let me tell you, Mike Fox has done more for Downtown Oak Park than just about anybody. He’s advocating on behalf of his commercial tenants, not his own interests.

We need parking. We needed the 360-car Holly Court extension, and we need the North Boulevard garage, all 500 or so cars worth.

More residential only extends the hours of downtown beyond 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and makes it a happening place.

Vehicular traffic in front of retail increases business by up to 50 percent.

Crandall Arambula didn’t make that up. That is an industry statistic. Marion and Westgate need to be open to 2-way traffic?#34;and can still be pedestrian friendly. I appreciate the merchants’ concerns over the disruption caused by construction, but with the long-term potential for increased business, that’s a momentary setback that can be eased with some financial support. That could be a good use of TIF funds.

We need buildings that are retail friendly. If they can be historic, too, that’s great. But if they don’t or won’t work for today’s merchandising environment, being historic means nothing.

Put in “New Street” to create some real traffic circulation, additional retail opportunities, better access to the shops of Oak Park as well as the North Boulevard deck.

You have a chance to approve some really exciting plans.

Please take advantage of this opportunity. You will be thanked for years to come not only by the merchants, but the taxpayers.

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