Oak Park’s village board election comes at a time of change downtown, but before we’re able to assess the impact of what’s recently underway. The snapshots of downtown Oak Park that voters could take on their way to polls would show Whiteco construction in the early stages, the condos in the 1120 Club building on Lake not yet occupied and the Marion Street mall neglected but still intact.
Those who advocate density know what comes next. Squeeze a garage in front of Prairie Bread Kitchen. Stack condos atop a new development at Lake and Forest. If these projects are architecturally distinguished and carefully planned to be pedestrian-friendly, I’ll support them. But the record shows that good planning and design are not a priority for Oak Park’s advocates of density.
Two years ago, the downtown planning consultants proposed new public space between Austin Gardens and Lake Street, “Founders Square,” but the density crowd has moved ahead with the removal of public space on Marion without making progress on “Founders Square.” At Lake and Forest, the density crowd touts the developer’s role in Des Plaines, but I suggest that the new high-rises around downtown Des Plaines are a good example of what we don’t want for Oak Park. The planning consultants also recommended that Oak Park enact design standards for downtown. But this has lagged and is still in the earliest stage. The advocates of density, by not advancing this piece of the downtown plan, missed their opportunity to show a commitment to good planning and design.
In recent campaigns for village board, VMA-endorsed candidates have suggested that if we build lots of small condos, we’ll support our schools by cherry-picking new taxpaying but childless residents. This scheme does not pan out; due to recent condo development around downtown, Holmes School enrollment has surged. But the more stress we put on trying to discourage developers from attracting families, the less family-friendly and pedestrian-friendly our development outcomes become. And because smaller units will turn over more frequently and be more vulnerable to market volatility, the tax revenues are harder to predict.
Crandall and Arambula, the downtown planning consultants in 2004 and 2005, told us that if you allow density without good planning, you won’t get the results you want. Downtown Oak Park can be enhanced and can generate more tax revenues. But we need to recognize that downtown Oak Park’s value is linked to its proximity to its surrounding gems: Pleasant Home, Unity Temple and the Frank Lloyd Wright homes.
I urge you to consider the Vision Community Action candidates for village trustee – Jim Balanoff, Bob Milstein, Gary Schwab and Annabel Abraham – because I believe that they’ll get the best results for Oak Park .