The year just ending was a good one in Oak Park and River Forest with progress on many fronts. But more than most years, it feels as if 2014 was a prelude to what can be a very notable year to come.
Here are issues we’re expecting to see progress on in 2015:
An intense focus on collaboration among taxing bodies both within each village and between neighboring communities. Our current levels of taxing and spending are simply unsustainable. Actively re-imagining how we provide services or eliminate services is vital and positive.
Specifically, let’s start the discussion now of a shared fire protection district among Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park. Let’s make real Anan Abu-Taleb’s concept of a joint sustainability staffer working in all three towns and uniting efforts across all taxing entities and volunteer groups. Time to decide if Oak Park really needs its own health department or if it is a luxury. The political energy spent seeking to salvage the River Forest Township government is wasted. Merge the township with village hall in River Forest.
The other way to improve the financial vitality of our villages is through growth. At long last, notable developments are underway, or on the verge, in Downtown Oak Park. We’re going to take great satisfaction in watching 20 stories of glass and steel rise at Lake and Forest. And we anticipate active development at the old Colt building site, at 1000 Lake Street, and at Harlem and South Boulevard. Let’s get this done. Finally.
This is also the year when real headway needs to be made on Madison Street in Oak Park. The Oak Park Economic Development Corporation is remade. The TIF deal on Madison with the District 97 schools is done. The Grove Apartments are now open and the world did not explode. Now what about the rest of the street? Enough talk. Enough variations on a fancy streetscape theme. Let’s see taxpaying development in some mix of commercial and residential. In 2015.
It will certainly be the year of the food store with Pete’s Fresh Market, Fresh Thyme, Sugar Beet, Pan’s and Fresh Market opening or renewed. And we’d love to see Mariano’s come to Harlem and North. All good.
But this has to be the year of active headway on the derelict properties owned by the Klerenomos family on Harrison Street in the Oak Park Arts District and by Ed Ditchfield at Lake and Lathrop in River Forest.
There will be notable and well contested school board elections at all three local districts: District 200 (Oak Park and River Forest High School), the District 97 elementary district in Oak Park and District 90 elementary in River Forest.
Beyond Election Day, we want to see a continued focus on remaking the discipline system at OPRF so that it more effectively supports and shapes African-American students. The school’s emphasis on equity in both discipline and academics is admirable and must be made more real. OPRF must also settle the distracting pool debate just as D90 has to find a way through the endless Roosevelt School renovation battle.
Finally, we’ve seen genuine progress in opening bridges between Oak Park and Austin. It is essential that we stop focusing on divisions between our communities and begin to see opportunities to work side-by-side, to grow connections.
The election of Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin is another positive development toward this goal. Boykin has the determination to bring county resources to the West Side and the perspective to see how Proviso Township, Oak Park and Austin can find common ground.