It has been a good year in Oak Park and River Forest. Discernible progress on multiple fronts. And important setting of the stage for two critical issues that will play out in the new year.
Development gets a lot of headlines in these two villages of late. We’re glad of that after the lost decade following the Great Recession of 2008 and anticipating another economic downturn in the near future. There has been a window to get projects done and both River Forest and Oak Park have moved aggressively.
While there may not be consensus on high-rises in Oak Park there appears to be wide agreement that the latest proposal, 28 floors in spitting distance of Unity Temple, is a non-starter. That’s good. A substantially more modest proposal for the bank drive-thru site on Lake Street will be welcome in the new year.
Meanwhile, the already approved high-rise projects are well on their way to completion and occupancy.
But across these villages any number of notable projects won approval this year. Some of them are already under construction. In River Forest, Lake and Lathrop will finally be remade with a handsome mixed-use project. And a major senior living facility will soon rise on underused properties at Chicago and Harlem. In Oak Park there is finally action, finally as in 30 years late, at Oak Park and Madison. A new Pete’s Fresh Market will anchor the north side while yet another assisted living project will replace the old car dealership on the south side of the street. Upscale townhouses are underway at Home and Madison. Upscale apartments are approved at Madison and Lyman. An affordable apartment project is OK’d at Oak Park and VanBuren. A new Alcuin Montessori is rising on a derelict parcel on Roosevelt Road. There are small wins on North Avenue, too.
Overall, a very good year for development.
Simultaneously, Oak Park has finally ‘fessed up to the roiling impact of never-ending increases in property taxes. From citizen action to the strong work of a village government-appointed task force, the reality of just how fast our taxes have risen is now documented, solutions have been put forward, and steady pressure is being applied. We see it in the painstaking work to cut costs at village hall, in discussions underway at OPRF about funding its capital plan and the difficulty a newly tight-fisted school board is having in reaching a new contract with faculty.
This is a necessary debate and one best had when framed in relation to containing taxes to preserve Oak Park’s values of diversity and inclusion. We’d also note that while never offered as a silver bullet, that active development, especially on long underused parcels, is an important part of growing the tax base.
Finally, 2018 was the year when both villages became fully focused on equity in education and in all of our governing choices. The America to Me documentary series by Steve James absolutely played a vital role in helping us see our public high school with fresh, honest eyes. But the work on equity has been taking much deeper hold for the past few years as school boards and administrations at all three local school districts have aligned on the critical needs we have on equity, on the necessity of driving real cultural and curricular change in these schools.
This discussion and, more importantly real action, will accelerate in 2019.
All of these accomplishments, issues and challenges of 2018 have set up the coming April elections. There will be intensely competitive elections almost across the board in our schools and village governments. That is all good. As always, we’ll be looking for candidates who see the complexities of our issues and who bring progressive values to those challenges and genuine ideas on how local government can collaborate to find solutions. It’s not just about the tax burden. It’s not just about a swimming pool at the high school. It’s not just about tall buildings. It’s about the interplay of all these issues, about innovation, about building optimism and hope in tough times.