Albion: Not just tree huggers vs. high-rise huggers

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

The opposition no doubt feels disappointed, even betrayed, after last week's vote to approve a new building at Lake and Forest. Many are asking, "Is this how democracy works in Oak Park?" The answer is, "That's how it functions." The real question is, does it "work"?

"Exclusive" development (i.e. economic development to the exclusion of all else) beat back "inclusive" development (economic development in a wider context) last week. Not a surprise, really. Oak Park, or at least village government, is suffering from "high-rise fever." It would be fascinating to hold an instant referendum to find out whether the rest of the village supports this new development. Pro, con, indifferent. The percentages would be revealing.

But it's clear the village board and the business community, at least, have blinders on. They don't acknowledge that there might be an alternative vision of development, one that goes beyond the merely economic.

They overlook the fact that there was less opposition to the Vantage project and almost no opposition to the Emerson and Harlem-South projects. Of the four high-rises, only one aroused organized, passionate resistance. There was something about this location that was different, but Albion proponents aren't interested in why. Instead (with the exception of Mayor Anan, who made good-faith efforts to reach out), they seem to dismiss the opposition as little more than "tree huggers." 

Which, I guess, makes the supporters "high-rise huggers."

Nonetheless, the opposition made their case for a different kind of development, a kind that allows for breathing space, based on an actual recommendation by village-approved consultants who proposed an open plaza on this spot, a people place, recognizing a wider context that includes respect for history, with natural and man-made beauty co-existing. 

This was not a mutiny against "all tall buildings" and "all economic development." It was an objection to bringing density to this particular spot, for very particular reasons. 

In spite of being mischaracterized, however, the opposition was successful. If opponents had not organized and been so vocal, you can bet Albion would not have made the adjustments they did. Without the opposition, the Plan Commission would not have voted down Albion's proposal. Without opposition, trustees Deno Andrews and Dan Moroney would not have lobbied Albion to make last-minute changes.

It may be small consolation, but it's important that this be recognized and acknowledged.

Will the Albion project have upside as well as downside? Yes, but for the next two years, it will be all downside. Vantage and its residents are not going to love two years of noisy, disruptive demolition and construction directly across from their entryway. The view from Cooper's Hawk restaurant will be less appetizing next summer. Dining outside will not be so desirable. 

After going through Vantage and Emerson (and soon Harlem-South), the downtown business district, pedestrians, and motorists will be mired in "construction fatigue." And those of us who use Austin Gardens for peace and quiet already had to endure the Vantage disadvantage.

Lake Street is clogged with traffic and that's just with one of four high-rises functioning. Imagine when Emerson, Albion and Harlem-South are operational — presuming they fill up. That remains to be seen.

The upside? Downtown will be teeming with new residents, spending money in local businesses. That, in turn, will attract new businesses. Downtown Oak Park is much livelier than it was 30 years ago. It will be livelier still. If Emerson's presence leads to a revitalization of Westgate's "Tudor village," so much the better.

Vantage brought us the aforementioned Cooper's Hawk. Emerson landed Target. If Albion can recruit something along the lines of Crate & Barrel, they'll be hailed as local heroes. I had one meal at Cooper's Hawk and it was very good, but I can't afford to eat there often. I will shop at Target and appreciate the convenience. The rest remains to be seen.

How trustworthy will the Albion partnership be? Will they make good on an earlier offer of $400,000 to protect Austin Gardens or will they renege because the park district didn't make nice and get on board? Remains to be seen.

Taxes won't go down, but more revenue will be available for village services, though some of that will be diverted to serve the denser population downtown. 

Much remains to be seen. Such as how soon the back wall abutting Austin Gardens will be covered with Wrigley-Field ivy, as pictured in Albion's latest rendering. Looks nice in the drawing. I'll believe it when I see it. Trust yet verify.

This likely isn't the end of high-rise fever. Will the Marshall Field building be next? How about the other corner — The Gap, Pier 1, etc? The old Montgomery Ward building, NW corner of Marion and Lake across from Chase Bank? Or the bank itself? Or both?

Much more may be in store. Which is why opposing Albion was an important first step. We need an overall development plan that actually gets followed, that incorporates architectural innovation, sustainable methods for all new construction, affordable housing set-asides, adaptive reuse whenever possible (the Marshall Field building, for example). In other words, humane development: How do we design a downtown with room to breathe? 

And how do we design a development process that does a better job of incorporating ideas from those who want to widen the picture and help village government take off its business-friendly blinders?

That's why the Albion opposition movement was so important. Yes, they got a little rude and unruly, but trustees Andrews and Moroney learned when you flip your campaign position, you're going to get some impolite pushback. The opposition always operates at a disadvantage, swimming against the stream, the odds decidedly against them. That's why developers usually get their way. It can be frustrating.

Is this what democracy looks like? Around here, yes. 

Does it "work"?

Remains to be seen.


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Ellen Edwards  

Posted: October 13th, 2017 4:03 PM

Ken Trainor, thank you for articulately stating exactly how I feel about the Albion project and what it has revealed about governance and politics in Oak Park. The opposition was valid and important. Will our mayor and trustees now see that development needs to look at more than financial issues? Like you say, remains to be seen.

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