In Defense of Density

Getting Down to Business

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By Cathy Yen

Executive Director OPRF Chamber of Commerce

Not enough parking.  Increasing density.  Traffic. Tall buildings. Will investment and construction change who we are?  Or will it help preserve our community?

Oak Park is in transition.  We boast remarkable culture, values, diversity, character, schools, location, transit, neighborhood businesses and housing stock.  We also demand increasingly expensive services.  There is nowhere to go but up for the economic expansion required to absorb the higher cost of services. Taller buildings, more profitable businesses and higher commercial property values are our best defense against rising taxes.

We live in an urban-suburban community, struggling between an urban environment and a suburban mindset.  We need more people living here, working here and spending here to raise the tax revenue needed to support our way of life.  The math doesn't work any other way – unless you prefer higher taxes or fewer services.

At the same time, local retail has changed.  Today, "Main Street" comprises restaurants, personal services and a few destination specialty shops.  That isn't a function of parking.  Lack of parking didn't chase independent retail out of town.  Amazon and big box did.  Surface parking won't bring them back. 

Our community is fortunate that some independent retailers have survived here.  They succeed with curated and unique product lines, notable service and reasonable prices.  Their continued success calls for the sales volumes only density and foot traffic can bring.  We're too small to support them by ourselves.

Tomorrow's downtown is experiential.  People arrive via all types of transit.  Cars are welcome on the perimeter, not in the thick of it.  This model isn't built for pulling up in front of a store and running a quick errand.  Not enough of us shop that way anymore. 

The new model depends on people walking through downtown, stopping at more than one business, living nearby.  It depends on access to public transit and creative mobility features.

Most of all, it depends on us making accommodations when we need to go somewhere or shop.  Expect to walk.  Leave earlier if you have to park.  Embrace the growing urbanity.  Appreciate that density can help keep our community viable and affordable.  It might even improve it.

Email: Twitter: @OPRFChamber

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Reader Comments

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Ada Johnson Tikkanen  

Posted: April 16th, 2016 4:35 AM

John - I'm always good for a smile. Let's not let all this hubbub distract us. Change is inevitable, let's see where it takes us.

John Butch Murtagh  

Posted: April 15th, 2016 9:31 PM

Ada - Your post activated my brain and I found that I shared your loss of the village of the 1990's. I moved to Lake in 2001 and loved every aspect. The charm of the theater, the silence of the churches, the handy grocery, the old fashioned Pancake House, the diversity and taste of the retail stores. Those stores are gone and the replacements are weak. That includes Marion. The loss that hurts the most is the friendliness of the residents that greeted us. They offered help, gave a free tour, and shared a cup of coffee. They became friend before we moved in. While the mortar was changing, so was the attitudes of the residents. They were now moving quickly, sliding back in forth to get a walking advantage. Eye-Eye contact phased out as did hello, nice day, and hope for better weather. The street cordiality and goodwill was gone. The change continues. The special days of Oak Park are over.

Kline Maureen  

Posted: April 15th, 2016 5:40 PM

@Mike - as you say " I don't see the correlation between residential/commercial development and higher property taxes--if anything, shouldn't a broader tax base reduce property taxes?" That is exactly the claptrap that the Village Staff, Trustees and OPDC etc. have been been selling. And guess what? It hasn't happened yet. So I'm figuring it's not going to happen with the three new developments either. And to the comment about the population, it was higher 40 -50 years ago because families were larger, not because there were more families. Probably the number of households is about the same. And households had one, or maybe two cars - - not three or four as is quite common today. So yes, lower population can mean more congestion.

Mike Hanline  

Posted: April 15th, 2016 5:16 PM

@Kline As Dean Rogers points out further down, the OP population (as well as OPRF enrollment) is far below historic peak levels so I'm not sure why there's so much concern over crowding, outside of traffic/parking concerns. I don't see the correlation between residential/commercial development and higher property taxes--if anything, shouldn't a broader tax base reduce property taxes? Yes, there have been failures (I'm old enough to remember the Lake Street pedestrian mall as my childhood dentist, Doc Harris, was situated there. They tried something similar, and failed just as miserably, in downtown Chicago on State Street). Not every project is going to be a rousing success, but I'm glad that Oak Park is dynamic and forward-looking and keeps on keepin' on. I was one of those guys who swore he'd never leave the city (until reality caught up with me), but I can honestly say that after eight years, I've never once regretted moving here.

Kline Maureen from Oak Park  

Posted: April 15th, 2016 4:42 PM

@Mike Hanline - here's some history for you. Frst there was 100 Forest Place the high rise at Lake & Forest that was supposed to revitalize downtown Oak Park. (OK, maybe 17 stories isn't so high but it seems pretty high for this community) Then the 12 story condo/apartment building further west on Lake where FFC is located was going to revitalize Lake Street. Then Trader Joe's and the high rise complex surrounding it. Somewhere in there was the reopening and street-scaping of Marion Street (that is now falling apart and undergoing repairs) And before any of that took place, there was first the closing of Lake Street to make it a pedestrian mall. That didn't work so they opened it up. For every new restaurant or shop that has opened up in the last 10 years, one has closed. The net gain hovers around ZERO. Meanwhile my property taxes are now 10 times what they were back in 1983-1984. That is a 1000 percent increase. How willing will you be to pay 10X your current property taxes to live here? And as you yourself commented, we have an "urban" feel with suburban advantages. But pretty soon, as we get more crowded and congested, I'm afraid that advantage will be lost.

Ada Johnson Tikkanen  

Posted: April 15th, 2016 2:41 PM

Well then that should do the trick. after all you have two mattress stores within a stone's throw of the building which will do quite well. Then probably Pier 1. I think our downtown was great before. But, honestly, if these monstrous apartment buildings and condos bring a Target to the former Borders, I'll shut my pie hole. (at least until I get caught in a traffic jam on Lake or Harlem a few times and people continue to park illegally on my street.)

Mike Hanline  

Posted: April 15th, 2016 12:56 PM

Speaking for myself, I am neither in real estate nor do I have any other self-serving interests regarding the revitalization of downtown Oak Park. I wouldn't characterize my stance as "pro-density" insomuch as it's "pro-progress." While I'm sure it's no fun living so close to major construction, I do think the two mid-rises will help to energize downtown Oak Park, as well as the village in general. A few thousand more people residing in that area might be the difference between vacant storefronts and a burgeoning shopping and entertainment district.

Ada Johnson Tikkanen  

Posted: April 15th, 2016 11:58 AM

I'm also curious how many people who are pro density and lack of parking for the "betterment" of Oak Park have something to gain by it - ie realtors.

Ada Johnson Tikkanen  

Posted: April 15th, 2016 11:55 AM

well Mike some of us did. Some of us found it the perfect balance b/n urban and suburban. Now I sit on my porch, look at the parking lot that was once my street and listen to the beautiful sound of concrete trucks beep beep beeping at 6 a.m. while dropping another load for the first of two midrises at the end of my street. Newflash we lived in the city too, but wanted to raise our kids in a diverse area that felt urbanish (with an emphasis on "ish") yet you had a yard and didn't have to run down a bus you missed b/c you were busy folding up your stroller.

Mike Hanline  

Posted: April 15th, 2016 11:33 AM

I find it curious that anyone would move to Oak Park to escape the density of the city, as OP has never tried to be a Naperville or a Schaumburg. When my own family situation changed, I moved to Oak Park from the Northside of Chicago precisely because Oak Park feels like another Chicago neighborhood (albeit with better architecture) with the perks of city living (i.e, walkability, public transportation, diversity, vibrant social and arts scene) and the benefits of suburban living (i.e., better schools, less crime, etc.). You don't know parking problems until you've lived on the Northside of Chicago for any amount of time (I became much better acquainted with the pirates of Lincoln Towing than I had ever wished). As an interesting side note, the city of Chicago in fact tried to annex Oak Park numerous times in the early twentieth century, only to be rebuffed each time.

Ada Johnson Tikkanen  

Posted: April 15th, 2016 5:24 AM

Dean Rogers - Just b/c you can fit another clown in the car doesn't mean it's a good idea. The optimum for a student to teacher ratio is under 20. My daughter currently has 22. And parking and traffic is already a problem.

Dean Rogers from Oak Park  

Posted: April 9th, 2016 2:22 PM

Ada- What extra schools?What increased population density?We have fallen from a population of some 70,00 to barely 50,000.My OPRF class of 1972 contained some 1145 graduates,in a school of 4600 total enrollment.District 97 enrollment is down some 20% from 1970's levels.There is no need for trailers or additional buildings or additions.The projected increases in enrollment will not even get us back to our peak enrollments of the mid to late 70's. The congestion and overcrowding you fear,will not even approach the former levels of enrollment and population in Oak Park.If our high school once supported an enrollment of 4,600 vs. today's 3,400,a 26% decrease,why would an additional few hundred students require additions or major renovations?Same for District 97,whose enrollment figures are also 25% below peak levels.And since the Village's population is also 25% below peak figures,I fail to see a congestion problem developing from the addition of 2 or 3,000 residents in high-rises.We'll still be nearly 20,000 below the levels of 40 years ago.

Ada Johnson Tikkanen  

Posted: April 7th, 2016 2:32 PM

okay now that I realize you work for the Chamber. What is the parking plan? Where are the extra schools going to be built? (or are we just going to throw up trailers in existing playgrounds for the overflow?) How long is it going to take me to drive down Lake St. from Harlem to Ridgeland? Do I need to leave 30 mins. early to get my kid to School of Rock or are you suggesting I hop the train and carry my groceries back the same way? B/c that's not why I moved to Oak Park. I moved here b/c I didn't want to deal with the irritations caused by the density of the city. I drove by more than 4 restaurants trying to find a place to take some friends to lunch the other day b/c I couldn't find a place a park. And I had to have my car. After 30 mins. we finally found a place with a spot. We pay a freaking fortune in taxes here in Oak Park - stupid crazy. But I don't complain b/c we have great schools, great cops, and a great life. And the village is getting ready to ruin all that with all these midrises. Further, the reason I shop on Amazon instead of local stores is b/c I can't find a place to park.

James West  

Posted: April 7th, 2016 11:20 AM

Cathy Yen, you really don't have an idea about business, parking, or taxes. Build tall buildings, and people will come, and shop. The reason Oak Park, lost its retail business was to malls. They had parking, and you could walk into the store you wanted, and you did stay if you wanted to shop at other stores. If parking was not so needed, then the new project at Madison street, and Oak Park avenue, would not require taking park of Madison street, and turning it into a parking lot so people can drive up to the store. Simple answers to reduce taxes are to over build Oak Park. That will not happen, and the services that we receive, are very good, although when you check the percentage to an increase in taxes to an increase in pay checks to people who offer those services, they don't relate to the increase in taxes. Do a complete study of Oak Park, from the beginning, and notice what changed.

Ada Johnson Tikkanen  

Posted: April 7th, 2016 9:32 AM

I used to love the look of downtown Oak Park. Now it has no rhyme or reason. And for the taxes we pay - yeah I wouldn't mind having a place to park. Parking makes all the difference in the world in supporting local businesses whether you agree or not.

John Neumann from Oak Park  

Posted: April 7th, 2016 8:57 AM

As someone how recently moved to Oak Park from Portland, I think Oak Parkers should continue to strive for what makes it special and distinguishes it from other cities - a commitment to integration and good schools. Portland has the artificial urban growth boundary, but Oak Park has a real urban growth boundary - there is no where for Oak Park to expand, except upwards. My first impressions upon moving to Oak Park was how much potential lies on Madison Street. I would personally like to see Madison street go on a road diet and the buildings along it become mixed use and more dense. Protected bike lanes would be great to see too. Oak Park is about 5 sq miles, being that small - walking and biking are smart investments. Loving Oak Park and happy to be an Oak Parker!

John Butch Murtagh  

Posted: April 1st, 2016 10:08 PM

Hi Brian - My wife and I spent 4 days in Portland (Oregon) a couple of years ago. We were amazed by the use of the old building that has been converted for different uses -- old banks became bookstores, hotels became offices, and the old trolleys were replaced by trains. The village looks aged, but is contemporary in terms of utility. The external and internal portions of the buildings are restored rather than replaced. Commerce is huge in Portland and the daily activity throughout the city bears it success out. There is no apparent caste in the city. The Portland welcome all from homeless to barons and treat both equally. The thirty year effort to change the city without scaring it is evident.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: April 1st, 2016 2:12 PM

@JBM: I flew back from Portland Or. a week ago. I cant comment on the plan, I did see the follow through. The tracks in the street railroad transit system was sleek,clean, European bullet style and mostly empty. We walked on Saturday downtown from Skidmore Fountain to a multi floored non chain bookstore. There were homeless in sleeping bags on the public sidewalk during the daylight hours. There were also homeless encampments on the narrow parkways between the public sidewalks and the street. Walking in general was difficult because of the hills. Parking was easy,parking lots and street parking everywhere and being used. There is little snow, however the ice storms and the hills make walking dangerous, if not fatal for walkers and drivers. The city closes down for days. Bicycles are not seen because of the hills. Walking and bikes seem to be none existent in Milwaukie Oregon, just outside of Portland. No sidewalks and very hilly. San Francisco Bullit hilly. Most everyone in Portland has or rents a car car to escape to escape to the coast, they don't call it the beach. My daughter lives in Milwaukie, works the next suburb over and driving is a must because of the lack of bridges that cross the rivers.I must admit traffic and parking are much better in Portland than Chicago or OP on a sunny dry Saturday.Walking in the cold rain has to be a problem. There are certain areas downtown my daughter will not enter because lane usage for cars on the ground level railroad tracks is permitted in some areas and some areas it is not, made more confusing because all tracks are in the street.Beer and donuts there are over rated. Fresh sea food is great.

John Butch Murtagh  

Posted: April 1st, 2016 11:04 AM

I listened to Speck's speech and find it easy to agree that the decades of vehicle growth has led to a world of financial waste and chaos. Portland is the dream city of the 21st Century. It recognized the folly and waste of the automotive growth decades. Portland was smart. It chose planned solutions rather than chasing trends. They built a dream. During the same period, Oak Park ignored the Portland style plan. It chose to follow fast money (TIF), urban style thinking, and amateurish development. It spent millions on making the village more commercial focused. It took 15 years of off-the-hip planning to end the project. The TIF, was broke, heavy village debt had been added, congestion became common. There was little improvement to justify the money, and more importantly, the time wasted spent on nothing. Oak Park's funds were near bankruptcy in 2013 when it decided to try the "Fast Money" approach again in 2003. It gathered financers and developers to use mortar to put money into the village coffer. In the early 2000's, the village focus was on its roads and highways. This time around the focus is on the sky. The village now sought high rises to increase its homeowners and commercial taxes and recover the decades of debt, waste, and neglect of the past. Maybe it will work for the movers and shakers; it will never be a Portland. Oak Park is not a city of innovation. It is a village of repetition. It will never contribute to Dr. Speck's 21 Century vision.

Julie Carpenter from Oak Park  

Posted: April 1st, 2016 7:01 AM

Jeff Speck makes a case for walkable cities in his TED Talk....a worthwhile 16 minutes.

John Butch Murtagh  

Posted: March 31st, 2016 11:53 AM

The Experimental Vision - The Oak Park Chamber of Commerce has an experimental vision for Oak Park that is captured in four words: "Embrace the growing urbanity." It is simple; all that is needed is a commitment by the village and its taxpayers to embrace and accept the "vision" of Oak Park Urban-Suburban Community. The commitment is dollars. The experiment implies that the residents that live in downtown embrace the current urbanity, and are thrilled about the likelihood that OP is on the cusp of being the most congested mini-urban village in Cook County. In the chamber's article, we are told that because of downtown congestion and lack of parking, the success of the retail business requires that shoppers will have to accept walking and leave early if they need a parking space. It is a simple request! The Suburbaners (not downtowners) portion of the "new village" is to continue to finance the village thirty year old goal of using development as the way to reduce property taxes. Until Oak Park Urban-Suburban Community is completed, residents should expect some reduction in services despite the recent increase in property taxes. It is a simple request! WARNING: The chamber has stated that the village is economically dependent on the success of the experiment. There is no Vision Two. The chamber has stated, "The math doesn't work any other way ?" unless you prefer higher taxes or fewer services.

Moe Kaye  

Posted: March 31st, 2016 9:33 AM

Or we could just close Lake Street to traffic from Harlem east to Forest and make it a mall, that sounds like the wave of the future. After all, "Cars are welcome on the perimeter, not in the thick of it. This model isn't built for pulling up in front of a store and running a quick errand. Not enough of us shop that way anymore." Oh wait? Either we had too much - or not enough - foresight, I'm just not sure which! And anyhow, since we're going to make Madison Street the new "downtown Oak Park" we don't really need Lake Street anymore anyhow.

Brian Chang  

Posted: March 31st, 2016 8:24 AM

Or we could double-down on parking. Just look at the success of Oak Brook. Here's a modest proposal: If we eminent domained all the land between the Metra tracks, Madison, Oak Park, and Harlem we'd assemble a parcel roughly the same size as Oak Brook Center. Pave all the land for a parking lot (unmetered of course), put a shopping center in the middle, and watch the tax revenue roll in. It would be sad to lose all the housing (including mine), parks, and middle school, but we'd definitely solve the parking problem.

Heidi Ruehle-May from Oak Park  

Posted: March 31st, 2016 4:37 AM

Amen Cathy! Couldn't have expressed it better.

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