The decision last week by the Oak Park village board to slow down approval of the very lovely, very expensive and likely TIF-draining streetscaping projects in the greater downtown area was both wise and fascinating.
Ultimately, and by a narrow margin, the board OK’d only the most immediately justified aspect of the project, the remaking of Marion Street from South Boulevard to just beyond Pleasant Street. That $5.5-million undertaking makes sense because the water and sewer under that stretch of road is antiquated — it dates back a century — and is past due for replacement. The fancy, above-ground portion of the project will continue the design from North Marion Street and link the two retail areas.
Similar plans to overhaul Oak Park Avenue from Lake to Pleasant streets were tabled at least until late fall. While Village President David Pope and Trustee Ray Johnson were able to scare up the two additional votes necessary for the Marion wing of the project, it seemed clear they’d lose all other support if they pushed for the whole package. They wisely chose to take what they could get.
A few points for everyone to ponder as the proponents and opponents regroup. The notion of the VMA being monolithic is just wrong. The VMA’s two new trustees — Adam Salzman and Bob Tucker — were steadfast in questioning this project and thoughtful in their opposition. Their questioning the expense of this investment and the likely return on the investment were on target. They were joined by trustees John Hedges and Colette Lueck in raising doubts about pledging what may be the last substantial funding available from this TIF for high-priced streetscaping. As Hedges pointed out, this TIF is expiring in 2018 and the village has planned to build at least two additional parking garages out of the TIF proceeds. Given the current economic realities, the village’s general funds or bonding capacity are not limitless.
We ask the village board and staff to undertake an eyes-wide-open assessment of the range of legitimate calls on dwindling TIF funds before it revisits the Oak Park Avenue portion of this project late this year.