160 turn out to offer input on Oak Park long-term plan
John Hedges, Oak Park Village Trustee, talks with fellow guests before the start of the Envision Oak Park meeting at the 19th Century Women's Club on Wednesday, Feb. 20. | Curtis Lehmkuhl~Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 28, 2013 8:35AM
OAK PARK — More than 160 people turned out at the 19th Century Woman’s Club Feb. 20 for “Envision Oak Park,” an electronic public input meeting on Oak Park’s next comprehensive plan.
The event, facilitated by John Houseal of Houseal Lavigne Associates, offered attendees the opportunity to help the village focus in on priority issues and values to be addressed in the comprehensive plan.
While a wide array of issues were touched upon, an ever-rising tax burden, a stable economic base and public safety were top concerns expressed.
As people entered the second-floor ballroom and picked up brochures and a keyboard (to offer input), Houseal commented on the process so far.
“It’s going great,” Houseal said. “The feedback has been phenomenal.” Overall participation, he acknowledged, could be improved.
“It’s been good but not good enough,” he said. “We want to get more people involved.”
The comprehensive plan is being funded with $200,000 from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“HUD is funding this study, so we want to be sure we’re reaching out to everyone we can reach out to,” Houseal said.
Since last fall, Houseal has conducted 20 workshops, including eight neighborhood, four community-wide, three business community and six student meetings.
From those events, 11 overarching categories have been identified. Those categories included Land Use and Built Environment; Arts and Culture; Parks, Open Space and Environmental Features, Neighborhood, Housing and Diversity, Education, Community Health and Safety, Transportation and Infrastructure, Community Life and Engagement, Economic Health and Vitality, Environmental Sustainability and Governmental Excellence.
Within those 11 categories are five to ten sub-categories. He asked attendees to voted for their top three in each category, using ARS, or Audience Response System keyboards. The vote results were then displayed on a projection screen.
Houseal stressed several times that even though his firm was seeking to prioritize the top thee topics in each category, every single issue identified so far in the planning process would be addressed and included in the final draft.
Several issues were clearly priorities with Wednesday’s audience. Chief among them were concerns over taxes and economic strength. Having a diversified tax base and a the total tax burden from all taxing bodies ranked particularly high, and Economic Health and Vitality was the clear top concern among the 11 categories.
Houseal drew a wave of laughter when he related a recent discussion on the tension between traffic congestion and a healthy retail economy.
One previous workshop participant, he said, opined Yogi-Berra- style: “Nobody goes to downtown (Oak Park) anymore, it’s way too crowded.”
Other major concerns were crime monitoring and prevention, maintenance of neighborhood infrastructure, strengthening local culture and arts, a walkable and bikable community, community involvement and volunteerism, the mix of and quality of businesses, and energy efficiency.
Under Education, the racial achievement gap just edged out concerns over the quality and cost effectiveness of public education.
Under Parks, Open Space and Environmental Features, the retention of a mature tree canopy was the clear top issues, a value Houseal said was shared across all age groups.
“One grade school student told us, ‘If the trees go away, why would I want to move back here with my family in 20 years,’” he said.
The makeup of Wednesday night’s audience was overwhelmingly white (92 percent) and single family home owners (72 percent). It was also affluent, with 73 percent having household incomes over $75,000; 46 percent over $100,000. Married people or those in civil unions accounted for 70 percent of the audience.
Houseal said there remains nearly a year of work before a draft comprehensive plan is presented to the village board for consideration. At issue, he told his audience, are three questions- What is the state of Oak Park today, where do we want to go and what do we want to be, and how will we do it?
Most of the Oak Park village board was in attendance, as were other village elected officials. Current trustee and village president candidate John Hedges said he was very happy with the turnout.
“160 people. That’s great,” he said. He added he and his fellow board members consider such resident input essential, saying, “it’s what we base our policy decisions on.”