Don't maximize profit, maximize quality

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

Part II of the Oak Park Plan Commission's hearing on Albion Development's request for a zoning variance to build an 18-story high-rise at the corner of Lake and Forest, adjacent to Austin Gardens, takes place Thursday night.

I hope those who oppose the development will get the same respectful hearing Albion got when they presented their case on July 11. And I hope members of the opposition are able to clearly present their side of this issue. Let the strongest arguments prevail.

Why is it important to have a well-reasoned and -articulated opposition to developments like Albion's? Because this is about more than height and density and traffic and harm to Austin Gardens. 

No one on either side knows what impact this development will have on Austin Gardens. I don't believe Albion's "shade studies" any more than I believe "kill zones" in Austin Gardens. 

But the project, if approved, will impact one of our most beautiful (and yes, fragile) parks — from construction through occupation through selling the building to a new owner once it is up and running, to adding at least 1,000 new residents (Vantage + Albion) in the immediate vicinity, presuming both buildings reach full capacity. 

And judging by the rest of Oak Park, the majority of those units will have at least one dog.

What will Albion do to minimize the impact and address what none of us can yet foresee?

That's one of the reasons we need a well-articulated opposition — because someone needs to look out for our best interests, and village government currently isn't in a position to do that. They are decidedly pro-development and acting as facilitators, not guardians. They're looking to smooth the way for new development, not put up roadblocks. They aren't thinking about what could go wrong. They're focused on the possible benefits if this project comes to fruition. It's good to be positive. Not so good to overlook potential problems. 

The opposition's job, meanwhile, isn't to put up roadblocks either. 

Their job is to help raise the bar.

Developers, I'm guessing, are used to working with communities that are actively trying to lower the bar. Some communities want to make it as easy as possible to attract development. Well, to paraphrase Rose Lee's mother in Gypsy, some people ain't Oak Park.

I've been told village government asks a couple of things of new developers: that they pay some attention to architectural design in order to produce a "distinctive" building and that they maintain ownership of the building for a certain amount of time after completion. 

Vantage, the building next door, paid enough attention to architectural design to produce a slightly-better-than-bland building. But they almost immediately put it up for sale. So much for the requested ownership period.

That matters because it shows how little connection or commitment developers have to the communities they develop in. The new owners might have even less. Presumably, the Albion owners will sell just as quickly as Vantage did. Will the Plan Commission ask for a firmer commitment? Will the village board?

And how hard will they ask?

A number of years back, I moderated a group interview with Oak Park village president Joanne Trapani, River Forest village president Frank Paris, a developer representing the Taxman Corporation (which was doing work in both towns), and a couple of other local realtors. Paris impressed me because he really went after Trapani.

"Oak Park doesn't ask for enough," he said several times, quite forcefully.

Back then, of course, Oak Park was mired in what I call the "hat in hand" stage of development. We didn't believe anyone would actually want to invest here, so we didn't drive a hard bargain. We didn't ask for enough. 

Well, the situation has changed. Two high-rises have been completed, one more is almost complete, and another is about to begin construction. Albion would be the fifth. We don't need to beg developers any longer. We're in a position to expect, and ask, for more. While it's good that Albion isn't asking for a taxpayer handout, that's not enough. 

We need to raise the bar. Village hall alone won't do it. They need a well-reasoned and -articulated opposition to give them some backbone when dealing with developers. 

Oak Park welcomes development, as it should, but we aren't desperate. If Albion doesn't like how high our bar is set, someone else will likely show interest. And the word will go out that you'd better bring your "A" game. Maybe the next group would come in with a truly creative design.

Instead of a better-than-bland building, perhaps we'll get something genuinely innovative. Instead of not getting any plaza on this site, as consulting firm Crandall Arambula proposed in its 2005 comprehensive downtown plan, maybe we'll get a developer who is creative enough to incorporate an attractive people space into their building design. Reportedly, Albion is planning some kind of "greenway" between their new building and 1010 Lake St. to the west. Why not ask them to upgrade it to something that goes beyond perfunctory landscaping. Better yet, why doesn't Albion propose it on their own as a good-faith gesture?

Our reputation should be: "Oak Park is easy, but not cheap." Our development slogan should be: "Quality over quantity." If that weeds out certain developers, good. We don't want average developers.

But that's not how we're acting. Supporters seem afraid the opposition will scare off a prospect. Instead they should be saying to Albion and all future developers, "We're worth the trouble. Learn about us. Get involved. Make this building a feather in your cap instead of a notch on your gun."

The supporters of Albion are scared, which is why they're treating the opposition as an irritant. The opposition, of course, must earn respect, and if they do, development supporters, and village hall, must show it. That's the best way to get Albion's attention. 

Which is in everyone's best interest.

Including Albion's.


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