By the time the Oak Park village board approved the makeup of the Madison Street Coalition last week, the group had already hit the ground running.

With the goal to encourage development that fits with the master plan for the corridor finished last year, the coalition has already met with three developers and isn’t waiting for its monthly meetings to act.

“I’m excited about the coalition,” said Dennis Marani, who chairs the commission and represents the Madison Street Business Association. “It can really speed up the right development on Madison Street.”

The coalition-composed of neighbors, business, government and non-profit representatives-meets with developers to begin the public input process and to give feedback on early redevelopment concepts.

“We show them where the shortcomings are,” Marani said, instead of making the developer guess what will be acceptable.

Once a project gets the coalition’s blessing, it still needs to follow the usual village processes for approval, where additional public input is accepted.

“We take the rubs out of a developer’s process, so when he finally gets to village hall it’s an easier process for him,” Marani said.

Village Manager Tom Barwin said the coalition is “an attempt to have projects evolve from the street, from the neighborhood, on up,” with issues being addressed along the way. That would avoid the contentious meetings where sides are taken, vitriol swirls and the process needs to step back to ensure everyone’s been heard.

“It’s a way for people in the community to feel like they are involved in the process,” said Annalynn Skipper, who represents the neighborhood group Madison Area Community on the coalition. She said she’s “quite encouraged by the work of the commission,” which has “a lot of ideas and a lot of energy.”

Marani said he and the business association have also come up with ideas for finding funding for Oak Park elementary schools, whose headquarters is at 970 Madison St. The corridor plan calls for redevelopment of the property to put it back on the tax rolls. Marani suggested Oak Park Development Corp. could fund a purchase/leaseback instead of using the Madison Street Tax Increment Financing District fund. He said Jim Kaese, of RUSH Oak Park Hospital, offered empty hospital offices as a temporary relocation option for the school district’s headquarters until a new permanent home could be found.

“We’re trying to offer other solutions along the way,” Marani said.

The village board voted 5-1 to approve the list of coalition members last Thursday night, with Trustee Galen Gockel casting the dissenting vote.

“It occurs to me there’s a real imbalance here,” Gockel said, referring to the 13-member coalition’s three neighborhood representatives. He said many of the other members have access to a lot of knowledge and money, and if knowledge is power, and money is power, then residents might be outmatched.

“My fear is that they’re not going to be represented, and they’re not going to be heard,” he said.

But Skipper said that’s not something she’s encountered in her five months on the coalition.

“They stop when we interject,” Skipper said. “Our meetings seem to be very congenial. Everyone has their say.”

“It’s a public-private partnership, and I think everybody is well-represented,” Marani said.

Bill Murphy, a coalition member representing the community group Neighbors for Madison Renewal, just joined the group two months ago but doesn’t think residents are being shut out.

He said if anything, businesses are underrepresented with just one member from the Madison Street Business Association. If members were added, he’d like to see owners of small businesses get involved.

“Let’s put it this way: There’s probably a lot of people on the street … who aren’t very aware of what’s going on,” Murphy said.

Village Manager Barwin reminded the board that it had approved the basic makeup of the coalition in an ordinance approving the corridor plan, so changing the composition would require changing the ordinance.

Trustee Robert Milstein said there was somewhat of an imbalance but that the corridor plan itself protects the interests of neighbors. He suggested coming back to look at the composition of the coalition in a few months.

Trustee Elizabeth Brady said she’s confident that if community members of the coalition are getting short shrift, the board will hear about it.

“I’m not a shy person,” Skipper said. “I’m accustomed to speaking in public. I’m accustomed to being heard. … I assure you that if it weren’t productive, I wouldn’t be wasting my time.”

CONTACT: dcarter@wjinc.com

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