Some two dozen people gathered in Jennifer GoodSmith’s spacious Linden Avenue living room on Sunday for an old-fashioned, New England-style town meeting. District 200 Board President Jeff Weissglass said he hosted the informal meeting, not as a school board official, but as a resident who lives within the four-block radius of the Oak Park and River Forest High School campus — the area that will be most immediately affected by the board’s decision earlier this year to construct a $37.5 million swimming pool facility on the site where the school’s 300-space parking garage currently sits.
The village government owned garage will be torn down a little more than a decade after being built on school property and a new parking scheme exclusively reliant on curb-side spaces will be created by the village — the entity responsible for regulating on-street parking. Village staff recently released a 235-page recommendation for regulating and zoning the spaces, which was set to go before the village government’s transportation commission for a vote the next day.
Seated on a couch next to Oak Park Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb, Weissglass summarized the recommendation for his neighbors and fielded the many questions, concerns and criticisms about the long, winding path to a decision on the pool that some neighbors had.
The village government’s recommended plan calls for replacing the 300 parking spots that will be lost after the garage is demolished with a mix of staff, student and daytime resident permit parking. At least 150 of those spots will be designated staff permit parking, with roughly 11 cars per block in groups of five and six on all east-west streets within four blocks of the school.
“It’s not clear to me that we have to replace 300 spots,” Weissglass said, adding that it may make more sense to scale down to eight cars per block, “instead of 10 or 11.”
Weissglass and Abu-Taleb stressed that, regardless of what action the commission took on Nov. 24, the parking plan process will still be open to change and that there’s still a lot more work to do before a plan is finalized. (As it turned out, the commission didn’t vote on the plan, leaving it open for future discussion).
Abu-Taleb said he believes that the demolition of the village-owned garage, long considered by village officials to be more of a financial burden than anything, would be a net benefit to the taxpayer. Before it’s demolished, the high school will purchase the garage from the village for an estimated $3.5 million.
But Abu-Taleb’s and Weissglass’s reassurances weren’t enough for some homeowners in attendance, many of whom voiced a range of grievances with the board’s decision to construct a pool on the garage site — including the decision to fund the pool with non-referendum bonds; concerns about the length of time faculty and staff members, particularly those who are older, would have to walk from their cars to the building each day; and the amount of unwanted traffic and car congestion the new parking arrangement could bring to side streets, which some homeowners in the area believe had become more placid after the garage was built.
“I think the neighbors overwhelmingly want to keep the parking structure,” said Rebecca Morrow-Nye, a Euclid Avenue homeowner who solicited signatures for a petition drive after the meeting. She and some other residents are trying to collect the more than 4,000 signatures needed to force the board’s non-referendum bond issue to a vote in the March election. They have until Dec. 11.
“We’re looking for a pro bono lawyer to try to stop it. We need to try to get a declaratory judgment,” Morrow-Nye said. “We believe that [the school board] is breaking a lot of laws they may not be aware of.”
“We fought this very thing 10 years ago,” said area resident Lynne Williams. She said she and other homeowners in the area brought up similar concerns before the village put in place new regulations and a garage was built to ease the traffic congestion. She feared that, with the garage’s demolition, the area would regress to when cars blocked driveways, obstructed certain services and were hastily parked in alleys by people rushing to get to the school on time.
Abu-Taleb, however, cautioned residents to be less “the party of no” and more open to collaboration to make an imperfect situation better. Weissglass conceded that there were some homeowners openly against the garage demolition, but he said he thinks the neighborhood consensus is largely supportive of the idea — particularly considering how critical many students, parents and staff believe a new pool facility to be for the high school.
“For me, what’s most important is to try to help create the best plan we can under the circumstances,” said Weissglass. “I think the village’s parking plan is on its way to being a good plan.”