On Monday night, the village council will hear presentations from the two finalists competing for a $100,000 contract to oversee the updating of the village’s comprehensive plan.
This will be a big decision. The selection committee which narrowed the contenders to two did a strong job, and either firm would be a strong choice for a challenging job.
Comprehensive plans can, in the eyes of many residents, tilt toward the wonkish. Truth is, though, there are few projects a local municipality takes up that have greater impact over a longer period than a thoughtful and thorough comprehensive plan. That’s because such planning efforts soar far above the debates over video poker and which village department plants the posies in the planters on Madison Street.
A comprehensive plan is intended to take the 30,000-foot view of critical issues and to craft a plan for those issues that stretches out at least 10 years. Such a plan won’t tell you what sort of store might work at a particular intersection, but it ought to offer insights into how Forest Park focuses on the opportunities presented along Roosevelt Road for years to come. This plan won’t tell you what to do with the burned out two-flat the village owns on Desplaines Avenue, but it ought to provide guidance on the housing needs of the village through 2023 – both how to improve current housing and how to maximize limited opportunities in a built-up town for new construction.
When it comes to housing issues, though, here’s a major snag we see in crafting a credible, working plan for the future: the local housing data, which ought to provide a firm footing for decision-making, is lacking. Seventy years of property records are locked on index cards – yes, index cards – accumulated haphazardly over decades. So if you want to know about a house on Hannah, great. But if you want to know the split of single-family vs. two-flats vs. large multi-family, then you are pretty much working hunches. Want to know when the housing stock was built and you’re relying on the observations of long-timers. What’s the nature of the zoning violations and code violations and what do those problems tell us? Well, that is hard information to tease out of the index card files.
We’re not telling the village government something it doesn’t know. Officials are well aware of the problem and have started to take teeny steps to capture that data and put it into usable form in spreadsheets and databases. For a village that has done a fair job of adopting technology, the lack of useful housing data is an odd and glaring glitch. On the eve of a comprehensive plan process, it is more glaring still.
We’re not sure of the solution. Devoting more resources, time and money, is likely necessary. Finding new scanning technology to capture the information more quickly might help.
Our point, though, is that absent hard data on housing, any comprehensive plan is going to be less accurate and less useful, and that is a discouraging place from which to start this process.