Choose your battles, we were told growing up. Sound advice, as far as it goes. If you try to fight every battle, you’ll burn out. So be judicious and fight the battles worth fighting.
But “choose your battles” can also be used as an excuse for not fighting any. The adage only holds true if you occasionally fight one.
In my opinion, the Austin Gardens-Albion high-rise battle is worth fighting.
It might seem quixotic, i.e. tilting at windmills (or in this case wind tunnels). It certainly won’t be easy. Developers have a lot of money (and therefore clout) and the Oak Park Village Board is led by a newly re-elected president whose top priority is promoting development, so the odds are against us.
But the criteria for choosing a battle should never be limited to the odds of winning it. Some battles are worth fighting even when the odds are stacked against you.
For those just tuning in, the battle line has been drawn between the defenders of Austin Gardens (the “Austin Guardians”), a jewel of a park on the edge of the Downtown Oak Park business district, and the promoters of development. Albion Residential wants to build an 18-story high-rise directly south of the park, directly west of the newly opened 21-story high-rise (Vantage Oak Park), and a block and a half east of a second 20-story high-rise (The Emerson) currently under construction on the former Colt building/parking lot site. A third high-rise (12 stories) was approved for the far side of the train tracks, at Harlem and South Boulevard. Two blocks north from there on Harlem is the 14-story Whiteco building (now called Oak Park Place), which started this high-rise binge 15 years ago and which gave density development a bad name for a time.
The proposed Albion development at Forest and Lake would be the fifth. And they need approval because 18 stories exceeds the zoning limit (which is eight floors).
I’m not anti-high-rise. There is a case to be made for density in Downtown Oak Park. I was/am in favor of the other four (all of which received variances).
Overall, I’m pro-development, and we need other pro-development people to join up — because this battle isn’t just about development. It’s not entirely about throwing shadows on Austin Gardens either.
It’s about building one tower too many.
A compelling argument has not been made for a fifth high-rise. The implicit argument is: The more the merrier. If development has benefits (and it does), then it must follow that more development is better. Not necessarily. There’s a limit.
It is possible to overestimate the market’s demand. We will soon have three luxury rental high-rises up and leasing in a confined area. The first (Whiteco) is reportedly full, but it took a while. Vantage is half full last I heard. The Emerson will open sometime this year. What if we’ve already reached a glut of high-priced rental with two more high-rises in the works? The developers will argue there is sufficient demand, but that’s just an optimistic forecast, based more on hope than evidence. They don’t know because no one knows for sure.
So the argument for “needing” this building is thin at best.
Oak Park was underdeveloped for decades. We needed development. But do we need as much as we can possibly get? Should we let the market decide? That only happens after the fact, when we’ve built one tower too many.
Can a compromise be reached — fewer floors? Not likely. It’s all or nothing for Albion.
I favor nothing. In 2005, the revised Oak Park Master Plan, coordinated by the consulting firm Crandall Arambula, identified this exact corner as a good site for an open space, a people plaza. Is there a precedent for open spaces in the midst of a busy business district? As a matter of fact, there is — at our two busiest intersections, Lake and Oak Park Avenue (Scoville Park) and Lake and Harlem (Forest Preserve District headquarters). In each instance, one of four corners is devoted entirely to green space.
Open space at Lake and Forest has real potential. It would need to be innovatively designed, not just a slab of concrete with a perfunctory “water feature.” A gathering place needs to draw people. Think of a micro-version of Millennium Park. Concerts and other events could be held there. It could serve as a starting and ending point for tours (we could call it the “Tourist Trap”). Public sculpture on exhibit. Intriguing landscaping. An animatronic Frank Lloyd Wright and Ernest Hemingway having a debate about who’s the greatest. I’m just brainstorming here, but the first step is convincing the village board to turn down Albion’s zoning variance request. Four new trustees were just elected or appointed. Time to start lobbying.
There are drawbacks. We would lose whatever tax revenue is generated by not putting a building there. If the village turns down their request for a variance and Albion pulls out, the owner of the building might stick it to us if the village tries to buy the property (with, yes, our tax dollars). We would also have to pay for the demolition of the building currently on the site, plus the design and construction of the new plaza.
Vantage Oak Park across the street stands to gain from having an exciting people space outside its front doors (and preventing competitors from building there). A plaza would attract renters. Maybe they’ll purchase the property and deed it to the village.
Obviously, it’s a long shot. But it’s worth the fight because this is about our core values. It also represents a pivotal moment in our village’s history. Oak Park of all towns should be about more than mere development. We’re also about live-ability, aesthetics, history, humanizing the environment, and pushing the progressive envelope. We have a higher standard. We expect more of ourselves.
And the northwest corner of Lake and Forest is a good place to take that stand and make a statement.