The year 2019 will not go down as Oak Park’s best effort. And 2020 will have to be consciously better if this village is to avoid municipal and school board elections in 2021 that are pure rancor.
Here’s where Oak Park fell short in the year just ended. April’s village board election assembled a seven-member conflagration that featured a wider philosophical split than any in memory, less capacity for listening and compromise than is healthy, more fervent special issue focuses than lead to focused progress.
The tensions were seen in the village government’s inexplicable failing to take decisive action on equity – a detailed plan, funding for the plan, a willingness to engage in tough conversations on race and fairness.
That divide was most obvious in the inability to move a more inclusive Diversity Statement to passage without creating a national social media rage. More importantly there is still not progress on an overall plan to make equity a lens for decision-making in all the areas touched by village hall.
A good place to prove our leadership has the capacity for honest talk would be a thoroughgoing discussion and analysis of policing in Oak Park. We can agree our police department has many virtues and still talk honestly about policing strategies, about the high cost of our current structure and alternative thinking on policing.
The end of the Downtown and the Madison Street TIFs and the concurrent development successes in both commercial corridors ought to have been a time to celebrate – and a time for every taxing body in town to have paused property tax hikes and allowed weary taxpayers some relief.
With astounding tone deafness, the two school districts, the library and the park district all grabbed every available dollar for their own, often ill-defined use. Credit to Oak Park Township and the village government for foregoing the tax grab.
At a time when the schools, library and parks have accomplished so much on equity by aligning staff, elected boards and the public on making profound change to fight systemic racism, they are setting up an anti-tax election for 2021 that might undo that good work. Did not have to play out this way.
Looking toward 2020, park boards in both Oak Park and River Forest will have to think hard about whether this is the moment to build new and pricey community centers. Especially as the YMCA continues its planning for a potential new facility in Melrose Park.
At the same time, Oak Park Village Hall needs to think once, twice, three times about the timing of a new police station. It certainly shouldn’t happen until the wider discussion of policing takes place.
And, wise minds need to join up to find a middle ground that allows the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust to build a needed Visitors Center without further frustrating neighbors in the historic district. It would be a good start if the Wright Trust got off its high horse and did some serious community building with its neighbors.
Ditto Rush Oak Park Hospital as it reworks its plan for a new parking garage sitting foursquare in the middle of a residential neighborhood.
There will be – if the economy stays vital – more economic development projects in both villages. The Dreschler Brown and Williams Funeral Home property on Marion Street will be a prime site. And the U.S. Bank drive up on Lake Street will not be a bank drive up forever, though more listening will bring in a project at eight stories, not 28.
Oak Park and River Forest also need as aspirational vision. For us that opportunity is on bold innovation on sustainability. We have the thinkers and doers in place to do this work. Now we need our taxing bodies to embrace the possibilities. This year is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. We surely don’t have another 50 years to squander.
One last thought. Lake Street from Harlem to Euclid is going to be a full-blown construction mess this year as workers go down to the dirt for new water and sewer before repaving and streetscaping follow.
If we actually believe in the power of small business, this will be the year to persevere with our local business owners.