No doubt 2017 will go down in the history books as one of our nation’s most raucous years, marked by protests following the election of Donald Trump, the rise of the #MeToo movement and demonstrations concerning immigration, police brutality and a number of other issues. 

Presidential politics aside, real estate development continued to dominate the headlines locally in 2017, with new large-scale, mixed-use buildings, largely in the downtown area, advancing — with the promise of hundreds of new residents in the village.  

An increase in major crimes, including a wave of carjackings throughout the village, also captured the headlines this year, culminating in a standing-room-only meeting at Oak Park Village Hall in late November to discuss the issue.

The age of Trump

Oak Parkers played their role in the nationwide resistance movement, kicking off the year with hundreds of locals joining the women’s marches in Chicago and Washington D.C., following Trump’s inauguration. 

Oak Park Village Hall followed suit, passing a “welcoming village” ordinance declaring the village a sanctuary city for undocumented immigrants. The measure prevents village employees from cooperating with federal immigration officials “in the investigation of the citizenship or immigration status of any person” without a court order. Immigration rights advocates called it among the strongest in the nation.

The results of the presidential election, which took many by surprise, prompted locals to display rainbow flags and yard signs of solidarity reading, “Hate has no home here” and “Immigrants welcome.” 

The Trump election also spawned a flood of candidates in local elections, with new names on the ballot for everything from the Oak Park Board of Trustees to the Library Board, a race that saw 10 candidates run for four open seats. 

The Board of Trustees election also defied history, marking the first time ever the local Village Manager Association — which vets and slates candidates for local public office — did not get a single candidate elected. 

Instead, three trustee candidates — Deno Andrews, Dan Moroney and Simone Boutet — all of whom ran without VMA endorsement, swept into office, ousting incumbent trustees Peter Barber and Glenn Brewer. Trustee Colette Lueck chose not to run for a third term on the board.

Rise of the towers

That election upset, many believe, hinged on a controversial proposal by Albion Development to build an 18-story luxury apartment building at the corner of Lake Street and Forest Avenue.

The proposal faced fierce opposition from residents who argued that the building would negatively impact Austin Gardens, a public park just north of the building site. The new crop of candidates vowed not to vote for the project, but Moroney and Andrews flipped their vote at the 11th hour, paving the way for the development. 

“It appears as if I’m flipping my vote. I don’t blame you for being angry, and I apologize,” Andrews told the public before voting yes.

Construction of that development, which includes 265 apartment units and ground-level retail, will begin in 2018. Simone Boutet was the only trustee to vote against the proposal.

Albion was not the only development news for Oak Park in 2017. The board also approved construction of an 11-story, mixed-use apartment building near the intersection of South Boulevard and Harlem Avenue by Lincoln Property Company, which broke ground on the project in August. That building will include 263 residential units and ground-level retail. 

Downtown Oak Park also got a 270-unit apartment building near the corner of Lake Street and Harlem Avenue, now known as the Emerson Apartments. The ground level retail space might be the most notable aspect of the Emerson development, with Target opening a smaller-format department store (22,000 square feet) in October. 

The Emerson development also made headlines in August when a construction crew working on the project struck a gas line with a backhoe, causing a major leak in downtown Oak Park. The gas leak prompted the evacuation of businesses and residents along Marion and Lake streets. No one was injured as a result of the incident.

Another large-scale, mixed-use development by Jupiter Realty, which would stretch between Oak Park and Wesley avenues along Madison Street, appeared to be in limbo as of early November, when Oak Park Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb told Wednesday Journal that the developer still is working to secure an anchor retail tenant for the project. Abu-Taleb noted that both Mariano’s and Jewel grocery stores showed interest in the project, but ultimately took a pass. 

Abu-Taleb said he’s not giving up hope on the project, stating: “The bases are loaded and we have two outs (Mariano’s and Jewel), but we could have a home run next week.”

Village hall 

Development was only part of the story out of Oak Park Village Hall in 2017. The year started off with the departure of Trustee Adam Salzman in February for a new job as executive director of the Chicago Legal Clinic. The board chose trustee candidate, and former Oak Park Township trustee, Jim Taglia as his replacement.

Trustees also gave themselves a pay raise in 2017. The raise was approved in 2016 but did not go into effect until after the April election this year. The mayor’s pay increased from $10,800 to $25,200 while trustee pay also more than doubled from $7,200 to $15,000. In February, the board approved a $10,000 raise for Village Manager Cara Pavlicek, increasing her salary to $187,000.

The board, following an 11th hour meeting at village hall, also decided to allow a pay raise imposed by the county for those making minimum wage. Residents turned out in a big way at village hall, largely in support of the minimum wage increase from $8.25 to $10 an hour and increasing a dollar each additional year until it reaches $13. 

Trustees made headlines this year approving a $146 million budget that increases the tax levy by 5.7 percent, following recent levy increases of 9 and 13 percent. Trustee Dan Moroney said reducing the tax levy was among his top priorities upon taking office.

The lowered figure was achieved through a variety of cuts to various projects, but one expensive program — the Divvy bicycle-rental program — was held harmless in next year’s budget. Trustees revealed that the program, which launched in Oak Park in 2016, could cost the village approximately $200,000 this year. Low participation in the program is the culprit, they said. According to one trustee, the village pays approximately $17 every time someone gets on a Divvy bike. The board plans to further review the program next year.

Crime in the village

Crime stories took center stage this year, in large part due to the increase in carjackings throughout the village. The trend is not limited to Oak Park — police have seen an uptick across Chicagoland. Several attempted carjackings in late November and early December prompted Oak Park police to hold a town hall meeting at village hall. 

“We border the third largest metropolitan area in the country, and violent crime is up nationally this year, and certainly we have our challenges, but we’re prepared to address the challenges,” Oak Park Police Chief Anthony Ambrose told residents at the packed meeting.

Police also have been on the lookout for those firing BB guns in and around the village. The shootings have become a common occurrence, with vandals causing thousands of dollars in property damage. Those shootings have not been limited solely to property. On Halloween night a Chicago man was shot in the left cheek by a BB gun in the 900 block of Mapleton Avenue.

Crime news made headlines this year when police busted three massage parlors in the village, two for prostitution and one for operating without a license. Those businesses were permanently closed. 

Police also conducted a sting on an employee of the corner convenience store Austin Pantry at the corner of Austin Boulevard and Chicago Avenue. In September, police arrested an employee of the store and charged him with 17 counts of heroin sales and possession. The village pulled Austin Pantry’s business license.

On the environment

The village made some headway on environmental initiatives this year, approving a plastic bag ordinance that charges a 10-cent fee for both paper and plastic bags at businesses with storefronts of over 5,000 square feet. That change goes into effect on Jan. 1.

They also approved a measure to increase participation in the village’s composting program. Residents can get the first three months free under the promotion, which is a value of about $45.

Solar power made inroads this year through the Park District of Oak Park’s installation of a new system on the roof of Ridgeland Common and Longfellow Center. The panels are projected to produce more than 125,000 kilowatt hours of energy a year for an annual savings of approximately $7,000.

And after an almost four-year hiatus, the village filled the position of sustainability coordinator, hiring Oak Park resident Marynda “Mindy” Agnew. That position had been left vacant after the departure of K.C. Doyle in 2014. Agnew will begin the year by implementing the single-bag fee ordinance and also be in charge of the community choice electricity aggregation program.

CONTACT: tim@oakpark.com

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