So far, public discussion about the proposed Albion development largely has been conducted among village residents. The three main positions can be summed up thusly:
In favor because of transit-oriented development, greater density and taxes;
Against, but in favor, or at least accepting of, an eight-story building as current zoning allows; and
Advocating a third way, which would be a public plaza/park on the spot.
However, there has been little public defense of the proposal by those organizations and governmental entities in active support, which begs questions. Why the support? What facts and analysis are brought to bear? Unless they offer answers, there can be no real public debate, nor good decisions made. Perhaps that is the intention. Somehow Oak Park residents should just take it on faith that village leaders know what is best for us and follow along.
Yet hard questions remain that require real answers before this proposal gets voted on in light of the potential for negative consequences. So here goes:
What economic and social benefits would accrue to the village that would offset the very real potential negative environmental and social impacts of such a tall building on that particular site? How about some detailed cost-benefit analysis with some actual numbers?
What is the saturation point of the downtown area for small, high-rent units and how will transiency be avoided? Don’t we want people to buy into the neighborhood and village rather than pay too much rent for too small a space for a limited time before moving on?
Has anyone done a cost-benefit analysis of Austin Gardens’ positive effects, in its present state? Tools to quantify the social and economic value of open space are available.
Further, if funding were found (as outlined by Christine Vernon’s op-ed of May 2) to create a public plaza or park, what would the benefits be? What are the social and public health effects of a more people-friendly downtown that preserves and enhances the gateway to Austin Gardens and our tourist-attracting historic district? A study might show that increasing open space would enhance property values (meaning more tax revenue) and generate more activity for our somewhat beleaguered retail district.
Finally, how much is the tourist trade worth? What would best enhance it, bringing more dollars into Oak Park? Again, what are the trade-offs between well-planned open spaces which entice lingering vs. a tall building past which people hurry past on their way to somewhere else? Which would bring more visitors and thus more dollars to downtown Oak Park?
A site-specific analysis could shed light on the potential impacts of the three options outlined above. It is possible and should be done and made public. The answers might be surprising, particularly to those with a vested interest in following the received wisdom of building higher at any cost.
Adrian Fisher is a resident of Oak Park.