Just as Larry Bird was the NBA’s Larry Legend, the late Larry Christmas was the Larry Legend of Chicago area regional planning.
Oak Parkers know Larry as one of the greatest Oak Park village presidents along with Sarah Bode and Jim McClure. What they don’t know is Larry Christmas’ pivotal role in regional planning at the Metropolitan Housing and Planning Council and the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission (NIPC).
The book Beyond Burnham: An Illustrated History of Planning for the Chicago Region recounts Larry’s exploits on behalf of sound regional planning. Larry served as NIPC research director in the 1960s and developed NIPC’s “Finger Plan” to significantly curtail suburban sprawl in the face of very effective opposition and race-baiting tactics by the Winnetka-based Save Our Suburbs (SOS).
As NIPC’s planning director, Larry led the efforts in 1976 to deny Oak Brook federal funds that required NIPC approval for road improvements adjacent to the Oak Brook Mall. He did so because Oak Brook was seeking to become a major employment center while excluding housing affordable to most of the people who would work there. The opposition to NIPC’s position was fierce. An evenly divided NIPC board eventually rejected Larry’s staff recommendation when the city of Chicago turned against it because Mayor Daley the First feared that taking discriminatory housing practices into account could lead to federal funds being denied to deliberately-segregated Chicago (I attended that meeting).
Larry left NIPC to head the Metropolitan Housing and Planning Council which, partly due to the foundations he built there, has evolved into the highly respected Metropolitan Planning Council, which has become a vocal advocate for affordable and integrated housing.
In 1980 Larry was named executive director of NIPC, just as the Reagan administration gutted federal funding for regional planning, producing a financial and political crisis that shuttered the doors of many regional planning agencies. But Larry reshaped NIPC’s mission as its staff plummeted from a high of 150 in the mid-1970s to just 30. He moved quickly to rework NIPC’s image and expand support for local governments. Larry used his knowledge of urban forces to steer it in new directions. His efforts enabled it to exist until 2007, ending 50 years as the heart of regional planning here.
Larry guided the organization to create new types of “interjurisdictional solutions.” NIPC created the first “corridor council” in the nation to address the impacts of extending the North-South Tollway (I-355) into central Lake County. He steered NIPC into a leadership role in conservation to address the loss of natural habitat, farmland conservation, and biodiversity. Perhaps most importantly, he launched a two-year project, the “Strategic Plan for Land Resource Management,” which sought to eliminate incentives that foster suburban sprawl.
Oak Brook, of course, was among the wealthy communities that opposed this plan. Following his retirement from NIPC in 1992, Larry very accurately dubbed Oak Brook the “ultimate product of tax-based planning” that obstructs regional planning goals. He told the Chicago Reader, “It’s like Monopoly — a wonderful board game, but all but one player loses,” referring to Oak Brook’s ability to enjoy massive property and sales tax growth while struggling towns got little or nothing from all the development. “I have no objection to some local governments winning more than others, but I do object to having the losers lose so dramatically.” Oak Park was one of those losers, no longer a regional shopping center as Oak Brook’s regional mall grew in part due to subsidies from our tax dollars.
All this, of course, was on top of Larry’s key roles as chair of the Oak Park Plan Commission where his skills helped save what would become the award-winning Comprehensive Plan 1979, and as village president.
Larry Christmas’ positive influence on regional and local planning created a legacy that few can match. It’s no wonder that he has long been “Larry Legend” to us city and regional planners in northeastern Illinois. There will never be another like him.
Daniel Lauber, AICP, was Oak Park’s senior planner and principle author of Oak Park’s Comprehensive Plan 1979. He has served as president of the American Planning Association and of the American Institute of Certified Planners.