The Oak Park Village Board did the right thing approving the Albion building project. Here’s why. Spending by our governmental bodies in Oak Park regularly exceeds the rate of inflation. In fact, that has been the case forever and ever, amen.
Because spending outpaces inflation and will far into the future, the tax base needs to grow in order to keep up. But how? There are basically two ways: 1) keep increasing taxes on existing property owners, or 2) increase tax revenue from new sources, such as the Albion project.
To date, we have largely relied on the first option. But that has come at a literal and figurative price. Oak Park used to be a middle class city on a hill, including a wide variety of diverse residents, especially economically diverse.
Through tax and cost of living increases, Oak Park has now become an upper middle class city on a hill, and that is a much less compelling story. In fact, without growing our tax base from new sources, Oak Park will become a rich city that was formerly on a hill. And that is not something I would like to see.
So as long as Oak Parkers are inclined to approve every tax increase presented to them (with the exception of the pool referendum which lost by roughly 15 votes), I will support nearly any large building project in downtown Oak Park that — as long as it is built without large government incentives — will bring significant new tax dollars to the village and at least offset some of the increasing rate of government spending.
There were some other objections to Albion. One was that we are bringing too much density to the village. Did you know that the population of Oak Park used to be significantly higher than it is now? The current population is 52,000. But from the 1930s to 1970, Oak Park’s population was closer to 65,000.
How is it that Oak Park was not clogged with traffic jams during that 40-year period? Simply put, people behaved differently than they do now. Many owned one car or no car at all. They walked more and used public transportation more.
That compares with today when many residents, including many who are opposed to Albion, own two or more cars and think nothing of adding to the traffic downtown by motoring to pick up pizza at Lou Malnati’s.
Now imagine the typical resident at Albion. Dinner out? They will walk to a nearby restaurant (and already business owners are seeing an uptick in business from other new apartments downtown). Need a book to read? No Albion resident in their right mind will drive two blocks to the library. They’ll walk.
If the village gets better at adding smart bike lanes (we’ve got plenty of east/west bike lanes and need more north/south), imagine a town where more of us cutie petuties get out of our cars and onto a bike to visit downtown.
What other objections were there? Shade in Austin Garden. That one was taken care of by the new stepped-back building design. Even the shade experts agree. (Who knew there was such a specialty?)
Desire for more process with the new design by sending it back to the Plan Commission? In Oak Park we overdo process in my opinion. Longer process seldom equals better outcomes. The village board acted on a design that resolved the primary objections of the split vote in the Plan Commission.
And some people do not like the new building design. We are not a planned prairie-style community, and as much as I may want the architecture police to enforce my idea of good taste, I’m willing to delegate that responsibility to the village board.
So in the end, unless we all take a pledge to never vote for another tax referendum (fat chance that), I say, “build, baby, build” downtown.