As COVID-19 continues to wreak economic havoc, the Oak Park village board faces the unenviable task of deciding what capital improvements the village immediately needs and what projects can wait. Capital improvement discussions began Oct. 12, as village staff walked trustees and the mayor through the recommended capital improvement plan, a whopping 227-page document, for fiscal years 2021-2025.
While the board is a long way from voting on the plan, the Oct. 12 meeting offered Oak Park residents a preview of discussions to come and what projects are currently on the table.
This long-running saga continues: should Oak Park push to substantially widen bridges over the Eisenhower if the state ever does undertake its long-delayed plans to substantially rebuild the entire highway.
Village staff recommended moving forward with its feasibility study, called Cap the Ike, to examine the bridge decking opportunities and bridge aesthetic treatments over I-290, with an emphasis on Oak Park Avenue and East Avenue bridge decks. Federal grant money will cover the entire study, which will cost just over $1.3 million.
The Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT), which is still reviewing the scope of the planned project, has not yet given the village of Oak Park permission to begin work.
“We would hope we would get approval to start moving forward with this study in probably the first quarter of 2021,” said Village Engineer Bill McKenna.
As Lake Street reconstruction nears completion, the village has its eyes set on the next large-scale street rebuilding and enhancement project: Oak Park Avenue from Roosevelt Road to North Avenue.
The project also consists of sewer replacements and water main improvements. The work will occur in two parts starting in 2021 with contract bidding beginning as early as January. McKenna estimates Oak Park will receive $2.56 million in federal funding for Oak Park Avenue streetscaping and resurfacing.
Hemingway District businesses need not fear however, as village staff has recommended skipping that section of Oak Park Avenue, between Randolph Street and Ontario Street. Streetscaping in the Hemingway District is planned for 2022.
One of the most controversial and to some, most needed, capital improvement projects – upgrading police department facilities, has essentially been put on hold, with the exclusion of the existing but obsolete firing range. Work to renovate the firing range, which is in the basement of village hall, has already started.
“I believe this space that our workers work in is unfit,” said Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb. “I would absolutely support a design phase.”
Oak Park’s outdated police station is also located in the basement of village hall and poses a number of health risks, from the mental to the physical. Cramped, with no windows and cinderblock walls, the current station is hardly a welcoming work environment. Nor is it safe; the police station has asbestos.
“We got to start the ball rolling now to ensure that we are fulfilling our obligation of providing a safe environment for our workers and first responders,” said Abu-Taleb.
Whether the village should invest in police station upgrades is no new topic in Oak Park, Given recent calls to reimagine policing at a national and local level, the topic has become more relevant than ever.
“I think we’re on the right track,” said Trustee Dan Moroney, who supported budgeting for police station design concepts in 2021 that will incorporate space the village currently has, while providing long-term solutions for problems.
“The current facilities are utterly inadequate,” said Moroney. “We want an equitable solution for all our village employees and our police officers, without a shadow of a doubt, do a tremendous job for our community.”
Due to the board’s commitment to eradicate systemic racism in governmental bodies, particularly the police department, gathering design concepts for new station felt premature to Trustee Susan Buchanan.
“I don’t want to fully support a new building until, or at the same time as, we address the systemic problems with policing in general that are putting the lives at risk of a segment of our population,” said Buchanan.
Buchanan wanted the new police station to go hand-in-hand with the village’s racial equity journey and whatever changes it will bring about. Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla, who has pushed to defund the police force, was in agreement.
Boutet wanted to remove the police station from the racial equity discussion, saying, “I think the facility is not political.”
Abu-Taleb agreed with Boutet, saying he did not want the village to get hit with a worker’s compensation lawsuit should they fail to fix the station.
Boutet said she did not have a “full understanding” as to why the current station’s conditions were unhealthy, unsafe and beyond repair.
“I’m not, like, afraid of our police station now,” said Boutet.
Trustees Deno Andrews and Jim Taglia suggested people should get a tour of the police department to broaden their understanding of its problems.
“The basement smell alone irritated me and I’m an asthmatic,” said Andrews.
The village board will discuss the station needs of the police force in greater detail in a meeting expected to occur in November. Staff has not yet picked a date.