How the Livability Sausage is made in Oak Park, Ill.
The village's new comprehensive plan contains some surprising elements
The trolls came out at 8:25 p.m.
That fact alone wasn’t surprising. I was at a public hearing of the Village of Oak Park Planning Commission to discuss the draft of its new comprehensive plan. I expected a parade of CAVEs (Citizens Against Virtually Everything) once the presentations by the village and its consultant were over and the public took the mic. But amazingly, that didn’t really happen. Most commenters were supportive. Some wanted the plan and the committee to focus a little more on one area or another. Others offered advice and suggestions. Overall, it was very civil and contained. I was pleasantly surprised.
I am joining late in this process. The public, staffers and a host of citizen volunteers and paid consultants have spent nearly two years drafting the new plan, but I’ve only lived here for two months. The resulting report, Envision Oak Park, is more than 200 pages of goals, objectives and recommendations at how to achieve them over the next 10 to 15 years. It’s ambitious and, according to the planning consultant, uniquely so. He said that he’d never seen a plan that addressed funding for education or had an entire chapter on governmental excellence.
The plan is non-binding, but is meant as a guide for all the committees that govern the village about what’s important for the residents and businesses and how to achieve those goals. The plan even addresses concerns that are outside the reach of the village itself. Things like public transit (handled by regional transportation authorities), schools (handled by two school districts) and sustainability (mostly covered under a broader regional plan) are talked about in the plan. Again, the consultant said this was unusual, merely to reinforce to the village board what it should be pushing other agencies for as priorities.
To me, all of this showed a high degree of engagement with the citizens of Oak Park in the fundamentals, not just of maintaining the current quality of life, but in creating a better place to live.
I’m not going to go too far into the Envision Oak Park plan itself, except to say that if you’ve read the methodology and the ranking criteria for our Top 100 Best Places to Live, you’ll see a lot of familiar themes. The plan outlines how the village can and should address affordability, accessibility, diversity, sustainability, prioritizing transit in development, education and healthy living.
But back to the public comments. There was really only one negative comment, and even that was spot-on. One resident said that a lot of what the plan talks about (and what has happened in Oak Park and so many other cities recently) in terms of creating housing near transit is really creating the potential for gentrification. He’s right. The plan says that Oak Park needs more transit-oriented affordable housing, especially for residents. Problem is, it has a hard time articulating what is meant by “affordable.”
That gets us into two of the challenges with measuring affordability. One is that focusing on housing costs alone is often insufficient. Typically, if residents in a community are spending 30ish percent or less on housing, that’s considered a comfortable threshold. In recent years, the Center for Neighborhood Technology and now the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (using CNT’s research) also look at the costs of transportation in this equation. Often times, as people buy cheaper houses further from a city center, the increased transportation costs wind up overriding the savings on housing.
Oak Park has pretty solid public transportation, with two of Chicago’s el lines and the regional Metra trains and PACE busses running through the village. You can see by the map that Oak Park is already pretty affordable for a typical renter in the region. Great.
Then there’s the second problem: Are you talking affordable for current residents or the population as a whole? If you’re really looking to create new, affordable housing for low-income residents, you should start by defining what low-income means in the context of your residents.
In Oak Park, the income pyramid is a little top-heavy compared to the U.S. If you’re using current residents as a benchmark, you would have a much higher threshold of costs.
Looking at the Location Affordability Index for renters, Oak Park is already pretty affordable. On average, renters here are paying just 20 percent of their income for housing and only 34 percent for both housing and transportation combined. Arguably, the available public transit is helping keep those costs down, but so is the density of the village itself (many errands can be accomplished within a short distance) and its proximity to downtown Chicago less than 10 miles away.
Now, if you want to draw in new lower-income residents and make housing affordable for them, you might want to start with defining that more concretely. Perhaps develop some personas as New York has and work backwards from there. I don’t believe this is typically how low-income goals are set, but it makes a lot of sense. Start with the target income and grow the housing plan from that. Do you want your town’s income tree to be top-heavy or a little more balanced?
Once the public had its say, the committee discussed its own thoughts and reactions. All but two of us in the public gallery headed home, but it was interesting to see how the livability sausage is made. Discussion was pretty on-topic and focused. None of the objectives in the plan were considered problematic, and once they asked the consultant to replace any “shalls” and “shoulds” with “mays” and “mights” to remove the appearance of forcing particular solutions, things flowed pretty smoothly.
The road map seems to be paving the way for a more livable Oak Park. Once the plan gets formally adopted, it’s merely a matter of implementation. I’m sure that will be a piece of cake, right? Can’t wait to see it all unfold in the coming decades.