Businesses, Oak Park board: 'Not another Arts District study'

Trustees put brakes on new consulting contract

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By Timothy Inklebarger

Staff Reporter

The Oak Park Board of Trustees was set to approve a contract for up to $57,100 to study the Oak Park Arts District on Harrison Street earlier this month, but the idea was tabled at the request of business owners in the area.

Laura Maychruk, who serves as president of the Oak Park Arts District Business Association and is the owner of Buzz Café, told trustees at their June 5 board meeting that it makes no sense to spend the money on a consultant when the funds could be used for direct improvements to the district.

The board agenda item to hire Evanston-based urban planning consultant Teska Associates to update a development plan completed in 2003 originally had been placed on the board's consent agenda along with items typically approved without discussion.

But the Arts District consulting item was removed and placed on the regularly agenda for discussion at the request of Trustee Deno Andrews, who argued that any investment in the arts district should first include input from business owners there and the business association headed by Maychruk.

Maychruk said in a telephone interview that she learned about plans for the study on June 1, when she randomly met someone from Teska Associates who was walking around the arts district and engaged her in conversation.

"We just learned about this study maybe on Thursday," Maychruk told the board of trustees. "I was able to briefly discuss this with our board on Friday, and the general consensus is that if you read the 2003 study, not very much has changed, and we feel like this money could be better spent on things that we actually need instead of studying us again."

Andrews said at the June 5 meeting that the Oak Park Board of Trustees should defer investment until they get input and "buy in" from the business association.

"I don't think we know the street like they know the street," Andrews said.

Trustee Andrea Button agreed, saying, "I'm in favor of investing in Harrison Street, but I don't know if it needs to be like this. I think a more direct investment could be worthwhile."

Andrews said the top barrier for artists moving into a space there is the high cost.

"If we want artists to move into the neighborhood, we need to find a way to lower the cost and lower that barrier to entry for artists to move in; otherwise, it's never going to be conducive to a vibrant art scene because they're going to go elsewhere."

He called on Maychruk and her group to come up with 10 ideas on how to spend the money, rather than contracting another study.

The last study, conducted by students from the University of Illinois College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs in 2003, cost the village about $130,000, according to Village Planner Craig Failor.

Maychruk said in a telephone interview that her business group will discuss the issue at their next meeting and come up with a proposal for how to spend the money.

She said that she thought commissioning murals and permanent sculptures could be a good use of the funds to better identify the area as an arts district.

"I'm looking forward to having a conversation with the trustees to enhance the arts district instead of studying it," she said. "I'm grateful that they listened."


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Bob Stokes  

Posted: June 16th, 2017 12:40 PM

While paying a graduate planning studio $130k to do a study (although that would be the cost of one professional employee for less than a year's work when you add in those long term pension costs) seems a bit outrageous, I am not sure that I would turn to the current crop of business owners to fix the ills of this district. The truth is, the district looks and feels good, it has solid pedestrian infrastructure and design elements, it is close to mass transit, (and a clogged interstate) it is located in a wealthy progressive town...etc..and yet it fails to thrive. It would seem that planning has done all it can do here, as traditional planned interventions for commercial corridors have been plied , but have met with a rather unimpressed market. Thus, the district either needs to re-calibrate its market (arts might not be the winning hand here despite its symbolic and hopeful appeal), or find some new leadership to move the needle on adding more activity-generating businesses.

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: June 12th, 2017 5:22 PM

If they want to keep the cost down to attract more "starving" artists, then I would suggest some type of artist incubator or shared studio space. This would be akin to the shared office spaces that are popping up where you can rent small space and then schedule to reserve a conference room, etc. and everyone shares the cost of printing, internet, phone, space, etc. Just a thought.

Kline Maureen  

Posted: June 12th, 2017 5:00 PM

Ramona, thanks for your insight into your personal experience with this firm. And your last sentence is KEY: "The waste and bloat won't stop until the citizenry get involved and demand our public officials become better stewards of our tax dollars." Same thing applies to school referenda - keep giving them money and there's little incentive to differentiate what works from what doesn't. There's always more money to try something else.

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: June 12th, 2017 1:43 PM

I have personally worked with Teska on a streetscape project on the south side of Chicago. The organization I worked for paid them $100K and all we got were some traffic counts (they literally paid an intern to sit there all day and count cars), and some fancy pictures and drawings. No offense, but it isn't rocket science. We felt completely ripped off. They provide no advice or plan on implementation, strictly design. Its the same process as designing a house. Do I want hardwood floors, laminate or tile? Do we want concrete sidewalks, granite pavers, or some stamped pattern? Do we want black light poles with lighting on the pedestrian side? What style of bench do we want? Do we want curb bump outs to stop cars from passing in the parking lane? etc. etc. etc. It is really that simple. Does Oak Park love to hire consultants because they want a scapegoat in case it flops? The same happened in the school system when they hired a consultant to predict enrollment. Isn't that just simple math based on population trends and other data that is readily available online? The waste and bloat won't stop until the citizenry get involved and demand our public officials become better stewards of our tax dollars.

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: June 12th, 2017 10:07 AM

Is there a 12-step program for municipalities addicted to consultant's studies?

Bruce Kline  

Posted: June 11th, 2017 9:03 PM

Brian the more common (and lucrative) MO, is a variation of the game plan you cite: when the elected official is unelected - as they invariably are - he or she seeks a job as a consultant from the firms he / she dealt with as an elected official. Or better yet, he or she becomes a high paid lobbyist for a particular industry, that they dealt with while in government. On the Federal level there are rules and regs designed to prevent this behavior, but of course there are massive loop holes and work arounds that you can drive a truck through.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: June 11th, 2017 6:38 PM

Amen, Jim Coughlin. No worth while elected official will take a bribe. However, doferism, , I will do for you and you will do for me, the elected official will send this consultation fee to you and somewhere down the line when my child needs a job out of college they will come and see you. Untraceable. Impossible to prove Doferism.

Jim Coughlin  

Posted: June 11th, 2017 2:36 PM

Historically, Village boards have approved spending tens of millions of our tax dollars on consultants. There's no open and competitive bidding for these services and the contracts too often go to political insiders or someone with a connection to an elected official. It's white-collar patronage and needs to stop!

Paul Cagnina  

Posted: June 11th, 2017 11:18 AM

One last comment: is anyone else alarmed by this? The last study, conducted by students from the University of Illinois College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs in 2003, cost the village about $130,000, according to Village Planner Craig Failor. We paid $130,000 to have a survey conducted by "STUDENTS" in 2003. Are you serious? whoever was responsible for the alication of funds for that should be fired. A child could have done a better job.

Paul Cagnina  

Posted: June 11th, 2017 11:04 AM

$57,100 to do an evaluation of the Art District area is crazy. WHats wrong with taking a survey of the local business owners. Let them do the evaluation and determine the direction of improvements. I guarantee if Oak Park would spend that $57,000 on music in the streets in front of the local restaurants and shops. The street business will boom. After all it's called "THE ARTS DISTRICT" well where are the arts? Why don't the local owners add music on there own.? The business owners pay a huge amount of money in rent, because the taxes are so high. They can't afford it!!! My point is, instead of paying someone $57,100 that is probably "NOT" from the area and doesn't understand the pulse of the community. Let the business owners evaluate the situation and determine what is best. Save the $57,000 in consultant fees and spend it on something that will attract foot traffic.

Barbara Joan  

Posted: June 11th, 2017 10:11 AM

Jim-OP in general does not give a rip about south OP or east OP unless they live there.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: June 10th, 2017 2:36 PM

@ Judith Alexander: Just asking because you are so involved. If you had your way, on certain blocks on North Avenue, would you demolish from curb to alley, rid yourself of outdated buildings and build anew? what would the area look like?

Galen Gockel from Oak Park  

Posted: June 10th, 2017 1:44 PM

Agree with Laura and the previous commenters. There should be more talent and experience on Harrison street and elsewhere in this village than any 'consultant' would provide. If $57,000 is available, then divvy it up among future tenants to offset their rents (which are largely themselves determined by the property owners tax bills)

Jim Kelly  

Posted: June 10th, 2017 7:57 AM

And still NOTHING for Roosevelt Road.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: June 9th, 2017 9:08 PM

@Vicki: Oak Park is a pushover for consultants. It loves to commission consultant reports and then ignore the reports and commission some more a few years later. What's next? Perhaps consultants to study "how best to breath" or "how best to "wipe our butts" ? Fortunately, some Trustees had a moment of sanity and lucidity and stopped this nonsensical ridiculous expensive waste of money this time around.

Judith Alexander from Oak Park  

Posted: June 9th, 2017 5:46 PM

Meanwhile, North Avenue is the only commercial district in Oak Park without a plan of any kind. There have been no studies of North Ave. since the 1980, and there has never been a true corridor study to provide a blueprint for revitalization.. How could updating a 2003 Harrison St. study be a more important priority?

Brian Souders  

Posted: June 9th, 2017 4:53 PM

I've heard from Arts District tenants that there are restaurants and other businesses with plans and ready to move in there - but they can't/won't because of absolutely insane taxes. Study THAT!

Vicki Matranga from Oak Park  

Posted: June 9th, 2017 4:24 PM

what is it with OP that they love to spend money on studying? and ignore local businesses that are directly impacted by such studies? unbelievable. waste of money and insensitive. Fill the vacancies with that money.

Mary O'Toole from Oak Park  

Posted: June 9th, 2017 3:57 PM

Great ideas, Laura. Make the Arts District look like and act like one. It would be especially cool if some of the art were created by local students and adults. Even better if the art were produced by atypical artists led by community artists. How about a community think tank type center used to teach and produce some of the art be it good, music or fine art. The inclusion of food produced in a local kitchen by kids trained by adults with the knowledge would be a draw for many. Throw in music too. Endless ideas and hopefully there are grants/donors available to make some of this happen.

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