It is so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day challenges, wonders and snafus of small town life. Sometimes those issues are real and interesting such as whether to approve video gambling in Forest Park, how to abate school district reserves to taxpayers, how to celebrate the 4th of July without stirring potential gang violence. Sometimes we stop to celebrate a new restaurant, a child’s achievement, a great job of policing. Sometimes we address mid-term topics such as creating and rearranging TIF districts along Roosevelt Road or opening up preschool opportunities for more of our kids. And then, too often, we get stuck in pettiness and personalities, when we ought to be having thoughtful discussions on leadership and governance.
We all contribute to the highs and lows. Local government officials, active citizens, cops and entrepreneurs, this newspaper.
This comes to mind right now because there are two pieces in today’s paper that take the long view on compelling challenges in Forest Park and because Forest Park is embarking on making the longest-term plan a town can undertake as the Comprehensive Plan process begins.
We are publishing an essay by a local fellow, Tony D’Andrea, who is a trendwatcher and demographer. He takes a good look at the 2010 Census and its implications for Forest Park. Our population dropped notably – 10 percent – from 2000 to 2010 and our residents aged as well to a median of 40 years old. That aging, says D’Andrea, also goes to a precipitous drop – 23 percent – in the number of kids and teens in town compared to a decade ago. Finally he reports on the high percentage of vacant housing units in town. It is unclear what the split is between single family and multi-family vacancies, but at 9 percent of all units it ties back neatly to the drop in both overall population and the school age population.
We also report on a new survey out of the Woodstock Institute which on a shorter and more immediate timeline tells us that the foreclosure crisis tied to the nationwide housing collapse eased finally in Forest Park last year in terms of single family homes. But on the critical condominium front there is still no relief as the number of condo foreclosures ramped up by 23 percent from a year earlier.
D’Andrea is clear in saying that in the Census Forest Park fared better than some neighboring communities – Maywood lost 11 percent of its population – and worse than others. And, he says, Forest Park’s affordable housing, spectacular public transit and the small class sizes in the elementary schools continue to make the village appealing.
So now we turn to the Comprehensive Plan process where the big issues like these are meant to be addressed. Housing. Transit. Land use. Education. Commerce. This, clearly, is a vital time for a 30,000 foot view of Forest Park and its future. Certainly this grim recession has forced families out of homes they could no longer afford. And it has locked older people into homes they could not sell. That combo has dropped elementary school enrollment. But what forces might be at work beyond the recession? What opportunities are waiting to be plumbed?
Fostering an energetic and inclusive planning process is more essential than ever.