The Oak Park Board of Trustees approved a resolution on Monday night, directing village staff to reduce the projected cost of a sweeping downtown beautification and infrastructure proposal from an estimated $18.5 million to about $15 million.
Village staff and business community volunteers have been planning the Lake Street streetscaping project for years. When it begins in 2019, it will include repaving of the roadway from Harlem Avenue to Austin Boulevard, replacement of water and sewer lines in the downtown area, and beautification of sidewalks and street crossings from Harlem to Euclid.
The board discussed the project at its Feb. 5 meeting, but its most recent deliberations on the project focused more on cost reduction.
A $3 million federal transportation grant will be used for some of the roadway work, and $1.3 million will be covered from the village’s Water and Sewer Fund, while the rest will be paid for through the village’s Capital Improvement Plan (CIP). Village Manager Cara Pavlicek said general obligation bonds are expected to pay for about 80 to 90 percent of the village’s portion of the project.
Oak Parkers testifying Monday had mixed opinions on how much should be spent on the project, with several arguing that the high property tax burden in Oak Park should compel elected officials to reduce the cost of the project.
James Peters, a member of the community group Oak Park Property Tax Watch, encouraged trustees to cut out a portion of the project that runs along Marion Street, north of Lake Street. Peters said that section of Marion only has a handful of businesses, and removing it from the project would save taxpayers about $2 million.
Others argued for eliminating costly bluestone sidewalks and brick and granite pavers that are planned for the project. Oak Park resident Maureen Kleinman, who also is a member of the Oak Park Property Tax Watch group, said the materials would not hold up against heavy traffic and salt used to melt winter snow.
Mike Fox, owner of the Carleton Hotel and a large commercial property owner along Lake Street in downtown and the Hemingway District, urged trustees not to skimp too much on the details. Fox, a volunteer on the village’s streetscape advisory committee, said the original plan for the streetscaping project aimed to incorporate materials used in the Marion Street streetscaping project to connect the downtown area to the Hemingway District around Lake and Oak Park Avenue.
He said businesses in the construction zone would be disrupted for 18 months — the life of the streetscaping project — and some would not survive because of the loss of customers who don’t want to deal with the traffic.
“If you’re going to close the street for 18 months and put back concrete and asphalt, I would say don’t do it,” he said.
Trustees gave their proposed price tags for the project, none of whom argued for spending the entire projected $18.5 million.
“No one wants to spend $18 million on this project,” Trustee Jim Taglia said, agreeing that the North Marion Street portion of the proposal should be scrapped. “We all want an attractive downtown, but we don’t want to go broke doing it.” Taglia owns a frozen yogurt shop on Lake Street.
Trustee Bob Tucker said he also was in favor of scaling the project back to between $12 million and $15 million, but added that the streetscaping needs to create a sense of place to attract visitors to the village. “Downtown Oak Park is becoming a destination,” he said. “I want to invest; I don’t want to just spend.”
Trustee Deno Andrews said he believes most visitors come to Oak Park for attractions like the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, not bluestone sidewalks, which he argued have a “country club” feel. Andrews said the village needs to focus its efforts on other parts of the village and not just downtown.
He said North Avenue, Austin Boulevard and both Chicago Avenue and Roosevelt Road east of Ridgeland Avenue are “a disaster.” “We have to be cautious about business district equity,” he said.
Andrews, along with Trustees Simone Boutet and Dan Moroney, voted no on the revised $15 million price tag, while trustees Tucker, Taglia, Andrea Button and Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb voted yes.
* This story was updated to correct the amount of the federal grant that will be used to help fund the project.