News of local documentarian Steve James’ America to Me series about the achievement gap at Oak Park and River Forest High School dominated headlines this year in the village, but Oak Parkers had plenty to talk about on other issues like taxes, tall buildings, Divvy bikes and the upcoming municipal election in 2019.
The year of ‘America to Me’
The year 2018 in Oak Park might best be divided into two periods — before America to Me and after America to Me. When the 10-part documentary series, directed by longtime Oak Parker Steve James, along with a diverse coterie of co-directors, aired on Starz in August, it touched down like a meteorite, exploding some people’s preconceptions and other people’s comfort zones.
The series, filmed during the 2015-16 school year at Oak Park and River Forest High School, put the institution’s long struggle with racial equity on a national stage and forced viewers everywhere into a deep reckoning of what being liberal, diverse, integrated and American means.
At the more granular level, the film penetrated capital improvement discussions at OPRF and cafe conversations; it was the source of likely dozens of panel discussions in Oak Park and River Forest alone — including one hosted by community groups and the New York Times, and that was interrupted by protesting students whose urgent demands for immediate reforms, such as the implementation of a racial equity course, were met with applause.
The documentary cut some administrators and teachers caught within its powerful frame painfully deep. Nathaniel Rouse, OPRF’s principal, admitted during that New York Times panel discussion, within earshot of James, that “to look at the way I was characterized was incredibly difficult.”
James retorted that it’s “hard for us to fully portray someone who doesn’t participate” (Rouse, former D200 Supt. Steven Isoye, and virtually every other top level district administrator refused to go along with the film — a collective decision that was overruled by the consent of the school board).
Now that the documentary has aired, however, more and more Oak Parkers are realizing that the option of not participating in the collective drama of race in the village is not value neutral.
Oak Park towers
Luxury high-rise buildings again took center stage in the village, with the construction of Eleven 33, a 12-story, 250-unit building at 1133 South Blvd. Lincoln Property Company’s building is expected to be finished early next year.
The village also saw the beginning stages of construction of the much-opposed Albion building at the corner of Lake Street and Forest Avenue. The 18-story, 265-unit building was a hot topic in 2017, in part due to its close proximity to Austin Gardens. Opponents argued that the building’s shadow would ruin the park-goers’ experience, among other concerns.
The two towers — along with Vantage at Lake and Forest (that building sold in January for over $100 million, netting the village $800,000 in property transfer tax revenue) and the Emerson at 1135 Westgate St. — are a prelude to the 28-story tower proposal in November by Golub & Company at 835 Lake St.
That tower, which would cast a shadow over Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece Unity Temple, is unlikely to move forward in its current form, due to widespread opposition, not only from the public and Unity Temple’s congregation, but also Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb and five of the six other members of the Oak Park Board of Trustees.
Golub’s not totally out of the picture, though. Expect a revised proposal in 2019.
Golub Vice President Michael Glazier says the company “will make every effort to continue to have a positive, respectful dialogue with community stakeholders in any proposal we submit for approval.”
High-rises are only part of the story of development in Oak Park in 2018. A number of smaller residential real-estate projects moved forward this year, including:
Signing a redevelopment agreement with Jupiter Realty, Pete’s Fresh Market, Paragon Real Estate and Essex Communities. The development team plans a new Pete’s grocery store at 644 Madison St. (Oak Park and Madison) and an eight-story senior housing facility at 711 Madison St. Public meetings on the proposal will begin next year.
A 23-unit luxury apartment building at the corner of Madison Street and Lyman Avenue by Ambrosia Homes Inc.
A 37-unit affordable-housing apartment building at the corner of South Oak Park Avenue and Van Buren Street by Community Builders Inc.
A 21-unit townhouse development at the site of the former Oak Park School District 97 administrative building, which runs from 932 to 970 Madison St., by Lexington Homes LLC.
The completion of the five-story, 28-unit luxury condominium building, District House, at the site of the former Tasty Dog restaurant at 708 Lake St., by Ranquist Development.
Seritage Growth Properties, the holding company for Sears properties, and Tucker Development announced plans in May to redevelop the Sears building at North and Harlem avenues, right across the street from Oak Park.
An 18-unit, low-income housing building at 206 Chicago Ave. by New Moms Inc.
Taxes, taxes, taxes
The rising tax burden in the village was an ongoing topic of conversation with villagers again this year, prompting the establishment of the Tax Bodies Efficiency Task Force by the Oak Park Board of Trustees.
The task force held hearings and brought forth a non-binding ballot referendum asking whether the village should further study consolidation of the various taxing bodies, including Oak Park Township, the library system and the park district. Over 61 percent of voters said yes to the question.
The task force also recommended limiting increases to the village’s tax levy to 3 percent, not approving tax-hike referendums through 2030, and establishing a citizen-led financial oversight commission to educate the public and monitor municipal finances.
The Oak Park Board of Trustees followed the recommendation on hiking the levy by no more than 3 percent, but it only was able to do so by spending $1.4 million in budget reserves. How they’re able to do that in coming years is a big question the board faces in 2019.
The questions of student achievement, tall buildings, taxes and government consolidation are certain to be on the table in 2019’s hotly contested municipal election, where 11 candidates are running for three seats on the Oak Park Board of Trustees.
The flood of candidates is unusual in the village, which has been largely dominated by candidates from the Village Manager Association (VMA) for decades. The organization, which has vetted and slated candidates in the past, announced in June that it would disband.
That left a huge vacuum in local politics. A new organization calling itself VOICE Oak Park — the organization’s membership is largely made up of former VMA members and opponents of the Albion project — emerged and is slating three candidates for the village board election on April 2.
On the county level, Oak Parker Fritz Kaegi defeated Democratic Party Chairman Joe Berrios to become Cook County Assessor. Though that might sound boring, the assessor’s primary race between Kaegi and Berrios was one of the most notable in the March election. Kaegi ran as a reformer and campaigned on the promise that he would fix a broken and racist tax system. He began his work in early December when he was sworn in to office.