I would like to take the opportunity to comment on your editorial, “Let’s Go. Let’s build at Lake and Forest.” [Our Views, Feb. 3] It was telling to see the opposition to the proposed development at Lake and Forest branded as “lame picketers.” I get it. I remember when I was in college. I read the graffiti in the bathroom stalls. Someone would have the audacity to scrawl out a political statement, and there were near immediate responses, “get a life,” “nerd.” I guess that is just the sad, cynical state of politics in this country. Caring about stuff is pointless and lame. Look, someone is expressing a view publicly, let’s deride them! “Jeez, get a life. Don’t you know you can’t change anything?”
I live and work in Oak Park. I speak to many, many people. Everyone I have spoken to has expressed total disbelief that the village would embark on another project (read: debacle) in this economic climate that involves direct cash payments to a developer. Call it what you like, we are paying $9.8 million for a parking garage that costs $8.5 to replace and getting less in return. One million dollars is going directly to the developer. I guess I’m wrong on this, too, but I don’t know what else to call it.
I know, this village board is somehow not making the same mistakes as all the previous ones. They’re different people. They have learned from previous board’s mistakes. The fact that nearly all the boards since time immemorial have been VMA (Village Manager Association) majority seems to get overlooked. This is fruit of the poisoned tree as far as I’m concerned. There is strong recent history showing that VMA boards are out of their league when playing developer. They use public funds as “monopoly money” for pet projects that, in the end, bring in far less tax revenue than advertised. But, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. Hey, they’ve had countless closed-door meetings with the developer from the beginning. That should count for something, right?
You said that “Downtown Oak Park is indestructible.” I see your point. Forty years of declining sales and it is still there. So we should take away from this that, “It doesn’t matter.” This can be another huge debacle, another burden on the community. Downtown Oak Park will still be there, geographically speaking, at the very least.
Look, I’m a realist. Our chances of success against the Monopoly-money-mad village board are worse than zero. I oppose this project, publicly, because I strongly believe, and am extremely confident that, I am on the right side of this issue. And, make no mistake, it is an important one. Governments, small businesses and citizens everywhere are hurting because cities, towns and villages across the nation have been giving away the candy store to business interests in the interest of development. This is the game and the citizenry always loses.
If this project gets built, it will never generate the tax revenue promised and might take down a few hotels and restaurants with it. We will all have to pitch in and pay the difference. If it does not get built, the site will sit vacant for years generating little tax revenue (assuming whoever is left with the keys pays the taxes). Again, we pay the difference. I’m sure at that time the next VMA board members will be more than happy to point the finger at their predecessors and say, “But we’ve got the answers.” I hope that I’m raising awareness of an important issue when I stand out on a street corner with a sign, and I don’t mind being derided. At the very least, you can expect all of us lame wads to one day write in and say, “We told ya so.”
Christopher Hamer is an architect and fifth-generation resident of Oak Park. He lives on the 1100 block of Ontario, just a few blocks from the Lake and Forest intersection.