As a longtime resident of Oak Park and supporter of progressive action, I was stunned to learn of the proposed development project being considered by the Oak Park Plan Commission, purportedly in the name of diversity.
The project, proposed for 801 S. Oak Park Ave., should be rejected and alternatives considered. It doesn't reflect Oak Park's culture, values and tradition. A densely populated housing project (37 units on a property zoned for 16), exclusively designated to house the poor, is an archaic approach that isolates populations based on socioeconomic status. Such housing can segregate and stigmatize its residents, and is at odds with progressive thinking and village principles. Oak Park planners and residents have historically collaborated to foster a community of diverse integrated neighborhoods, where residents of all socioeconomic backgrounds live together in harmony, interact socially, learn and grow from each other's commonalities and differences, and pass on the principles of humanity and citizenship to our children.
The proposed development represents a step backward for our community. Rather than a truly mixed-income option, the developer plans to build an ill-conceived, institutional-type, $15M housing project, designed for a highly concentrated population of 100% low-income subsidized tenants. The project is reminiscent of the high-rise public housing projects built in the 1960s, which resulted in segregating populations of low-income minority residents away from more affluent neighborhoods.
As we know, there are numerous new high-rise buildings in Oak Park designed exclusively for middle to upper-income residents. These buildings do not include set-asides for low-income housing, a standard practice throughout Chicago and many other progressive cities. Instead, the village allowed builders to "opt-out" of supporting our community's goals to provide more affordable housing by simply paying a $1.5M fee. Of the 1,000 new high-rise units, five were set aside as low income.
If our village leaders had mandated a mere 4% set-aside, 80 low-income tenants would be included and integrated among our more economically affluent residents. Instead, those members of our community will be segregated into one overcrowded dwelling, all under the guise of diversity.
As a reminder, this project would more than double the advisable and legal occupancy limit for the neighborhood. This is not progressive. This is not smart. This is not bettering our community. We can and should do better.
Most importantly, the deal cut by our elected officials to sell out diversity and inclusion in certain neighborhoods (downtown Oak Park) undermines the village's core values. The development will serve as testament that our village chose to appease perceived concerns of our more affluent residents by promising to contain, consolidate, isolate and conspicuously stigmatize our low-income neighbors.
Our village should promote development in ways that honor the principle of diversity, integration, inclusion and belonging, rather than foster segregation. Our low-income neighbors should be welcomed as full members of our community, not housed on the fringe — close, but not too close to our affluent downtown.
Our leaders shouldn't completely disregard zoning laws, and should consider the impacts of its residential and retail citizens when making any decision. The developer should propose a truly mixed-income, mixed-use development and limit occupancy to 16 units (not 37). Such a proposal would be celebrated by the neighborhood and would be done in a tradition that does not isolate or stigmatize our fellow citizens.
Please attend the Plan Commission meeting at Village Hall, Sept. 20, 7 p.m. Let's join together to put a stop to backward thinking and fight for progressive, truly mixed-income development that aligns with current zoning restrictions and our village's guiding principles.
Shawn Kestler is a member of Oak Parkers for Sensible Development.
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