After years of botched efforts and annoying lip service, it seems possible that Oak Park’s local governments have grasped the fundamentals and understood the benefits of actual public participation in planning.
Two examples make the point in different, interesting ways.
The village, yes, the village of the Whiteco abomination and the Downtown Oak Park confusion, is overseeing a credible and inclusive strategic planning process for the entire length of Madison Street. It started toward the end of 2005 and is due to come to an actionable conclusion in May, or thereabouts.
Meanwhile, the District 97 schools have gotten themselves into an embarrassing position and wisely have chosen to endure the embarrassment rather than pursue a failing strategic planning process. In the fall the district hired a Tallassee, Fla.-based consulting firm to shepherd its first strategic planning process in 16 years. More recently they have concluded that the firm just doesn’t get what public participation really means in Oak Park, and, so, they have cut off funding and shortly after press time seem poised to fire the firm outright.
Good for them.
“We have major, major decisions ahead of us” on the school board, said board President Carolyn Newberry Schwartz. “We have to know what people want in their schools. We need a sound process for engaging with our stakeholders. We need to have a strategic plan that is widely embraced and will take flight.”
Newberry Schwartz and Supt. Constance Collins seem clear in knowing that no strategic plan for the future of this district will have validity if parents, teachers, taxpayers don’t have their say upfront.
Clearly, a district which hasn’t done a strategic plan since 1989 needs a plan. That this is also a district moving shortly to a tax referendum makes an inclusive plan with wide community support a definite plus.
Long, straight Madison Street has been in a directionless sputter since the car dealerships abandoned Oak Park in the 1960s and 1970s. Some good things have happened. Mainly, though, random things have happened. More than 10 years back, the village paid good money for the then-good name of Arthur Anderson to craft a plan for Madison Street. All anyone remembers of that dropped-from-on-high study is that nothing ever resulted from it. Since then the village has been buying, swapping and otherwise assembling notable chunks of Madison.
In recent months, as developer Alex Troyanovsky and his trusty architect John Schiess have started their own notable Madison property acquisitions, it seemed likely that Madison would turn into the next battleground of developers, angry neighbors, and business owners feeling shut out.
Instead the planning process has gathered all those constituencies together in a heady process of well-attended, well-publicized meetings where an intriguing vision of Madison Street is evolving. Notably, Village President David Pope actively called out his fellow trustees at the start of the Madison planning to try to surface any hidden agendas, “do not touch” issues. He found none. Let’s hope trustees don’t find them on the far end of the process.
Dennis Marani, president of the Madison Street Business Association and owner of Marani’s Garden Center on Madison, was cautious initially during a Monday interview. “It is still a process,” he said. “We won’t know if it works until it is done.” But he warmed to the topic, saying the consultants “have really tried to get everyone around the table,” and calling the process, so far, “a sincere effort.”
Like anyone who has ever invested hours and hours in such a planning process, Marani wants to see action at the conclusion. “What’s important is that this village board must act and not put it on the shelf.” Marani has an interesting way of measuring success. “Madison Street will come back into the mainstream of Oak Park. It will be part of your everyday thinking. I’m going over to Madison Street for this or for that.”
Talking to village trustees who have put themselves into the soup over Downtown, they seem eager to make Madison work. Soon they’ll have their blueprint.
And District 97 gets credit for making the tough choice of derailing their process until they can get it right.