After nearly nine years, Colette Lueck stepped down as chair of the Oak Park Plan Commission after her final meeting Thursday night.
So what does she see looking back over her years of service?
“One thing that I see for sure is that the bulk of the PUDs [planned unit developments] that have come before us have been primarily residential,” Lueck said. Developers apply for a PUD if their project needs relief from zoning restrictions. “The intent of the ordinance was to build the business community, but that’s not how it’s been used.”
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, she added. Some housing on commercial corridors is probably OK because places like Roosevelt Road and Madison can’t sustain long stretches of retail. “But there’s actually been very little retail use of the planned development ordinance.”
She counts three-two if you take out Whiteco. And those two-developments at the corners of South Boulevard and Ridgeland Avenue and at South and Home Avenue-included retail only after someone pushed to have it there. “I can’t remember any others,” she said.
Other proposed projects weren’t approved.
Lueck said the idea behind the planned development ordinance was to make up for a deficiency in Oak Park’s commercial spaces, which tend to be narrow and without adequate parking. The ordinance looked to prompt developers to assemble properties, then build a modern retail-friendly structure there that would include parking.
Lueck said that people tend to think parking is a major reason developers need to seek relief from zoning requirements. “I’ve looked … very few if any have asked for variances for parking. That has not been the big issue.” The market tends to take care of parking-developers can’t lease commercial space or sell condos if there’s no parking.
But serving as the hearing body for PUDs is only one part of the Plan Commission’s job, one that puts it in a reactive mode, she said.
No easy choices
“Our job really is to assist in the planning issues in the village, and they’re hard. There are no easy choices here,” Lueck said, because of the constraints-a small, landlocked village with old site designs and insufficient parking.
And businesses and homes are often found close together, sometimes back-to-back, and what helps businesses survive is counterintuitive to neighbors-businesses need bustle while residents want peace and quiet.
“There are just some inherent tensions between the needs of the residents and the needs of the village,” Lueck said. “Our job is to mitigate those tensions and try to come up with something that’s a compromise.”
On every project, residents want four-story buildings with quaint businesses that don’t attract a lot of traffic, she said. The problem with that is land costs-it’s harder for smaller buildings to be profitable, so larger ones are built.
Much of the commission’s charge is to educate people, Lueck said, adding that the biggest misunderstanding residents have when a project is proposed near their home is the impact of traffic. In reality, it would take a lot of trips down a street to be noticeable, she said, and more than even a large condo building could produce.
A mistake to crank up the pitch
The biggest mistake people make when testifying before the commission is that they tend to assume that if they make the most extreme argument, it will have the greatest impact, when just the opposite is true. Realistic insight is given more weight. “It doesn’t convince anybody any more if you crank it up to the highest pitch you can possibly get it to,” she said.
But Lueck said she can walk around town and point out how developments have been improved because of public input.
“Every development that came before us left improved because of the neighbors’ input, unequivocally,” she said. “There always was a change that made it better than when it [first] came in.”
Lueck also praised her fellow colleagues, saying the plan commission is a great example of good government. “They don’t argue. They don’t try to convince each other. They listen. They try to learn. And then they disagree, and they move on.”
Lueck was appointed to the commission in July 1998. “I didn’t realize it had been that long,” she said.
A social worker, Lueck’s “day job” has always involved children’s mental health. Now she’s the project manager for the Illinois Children’s Mental Heath Partnership, which brings together all state systems that serve kids from birth to age 18, such as child welfare, the state school board, and prevention providers.
“So it’s a lot of coalition building, working with committees on particular projects,” she said. “So I came to the plan commission with no background in planning, village politics, nothing. Completely green.”
You can’t just sign up for the plan commission. She was a representative to the commission from the Citizens Involvement Commission and understood the plan commission’s role so well, the chair at the time picked her for the post.
She and her partner have a son, who attends Oak Park and River Forest High School. The achievement gap in Oak Park schools should be the kind of issue that really draws involvement, she said.
“I think planning as the issue in the village is totally overstated,” she said. “I do not understand why planning and development have suddenly become the overarching issue that consume huge amounts of peoples’ attention. And I’m the chair of the plan commission!
“I don’t think any development will ever destroy Oak Park. I don’t think a multitude of developments can destroy Oak Park. You have hardly any business environment. The PUD is only for business districts; it’s not residential, and the bulk of the village is residential.”
Lueck said she’ll soon find a way to continue giving back to the community.
“I will definitely do something else in the village,” she said. “I just don’t know what yet.”
At the suggestion that she’ll one day run for the village board, she laughs a long, fading laugh.
“A lot of people have asked me that question. Not at this time,” she said. The time commitment-not just the meetings, but the preparation for board meetings-is just too much right now.
She said she’s amazed by the time people spend giving back, but she understands the drive.
“I have gotten much more out of being on the plan commission than I have given to the village,” she said.
Really? The long, contentious meetings and everything?
“Absolutely, it’s been a joy.”