What will Forest Park look like in 20 years? Carrie Hansen of Images, Inc., the Wheaton-based company crafting the village’s comprehensive plan, said predicting the best path for village land use and how it will weather the future comes from three sources. The first is knowing the community today, she said. The second piece of the puzzle is knowing and working with the surrounding region. The third element, she said, is casting a wide net for ideas – including the ideas of young people who will be adults 20 years in the future.
“We try to come up with a list of issues and concerns, and a list of opportunities,” said Hansen last week.
As a way of getting a handle on Forest Park as it is today, Images, Inc. and Hansen interviewed 16 “Key Persons” for three days in May at village hall for an overview of the community. Most of those invited were representatives of taxing bodies, religious organizations, schools, the library, park district and the business community of Forest Park.
“The conversation was informal,” Hansen said. ” It was a way to get as much information as possible from the folks I’m talking to.”
Hansen said the conversations were open-ended, and the idea was to get a summary of the town from the viewpoint of local organizations that interact with citizens.
“I’m more interested in what they want to tell me than what I want to ask them,” Hansen said.
“All of them started out by saying how much they love the community and how much they appreciate living in Forest Park,” Hansen said.
The consultants will categorize the remarks gleaned from the “key person” interviews into items which will be discussed at two upcoming workshops for Forest Park residents. The first will focus on “issues and concerns” to be followed by a “goals and objectives” workshop. A summary of observations will appear on the official Comprehensive Plan website, www.pictureforestpark.net, soon, she said.
St. John Lutheran Church Pastor Len Payton had a lot to say when Images, Inc. interviewed him.
“I noted that for one thing, aside from the Loop we have the best public transportation connection in all of Chicagoland,” Payton remembers.
“We should not be taking that for granted but should be building and thinking around that,” he added. Some of the ideas Payton has been playing around with include denser housing options and human-scale development near the Circle Avenue Blue Line stop.
“We need to be increasingly more pedestrian driven,” he said. “If a family is here, say in the 1100 block of South Elgin, and the kids grow up here, attend [University of Illinois Chicago] and then graduate and get a job in the Loop. Forest Park is the right location for all of that.”
In Payton’s scenario, with more upscale housing along Harrison and more of a “Madison Street” feel on Harrison and Circle Avenue, he thought a ‘virtuous cycle’ of local improvement would be possible.
“You have people who are going downtown and getting these nice incomes and bringing them back and spending them in Forest Park,” he said. “Then they’re paying property tax and all of that takes off.”
“We could have that because of the kind of transportation we have,” Payton said.
Payton presided over the change from St. John School to Walther Academy as Walther Lutheran High School stepped in to help manage the school. St. John’s lost students after the real estate bust.
“The number of kids in Forest Park has dropped like a rock,” Payton said.
He said he told Images, Inc. families need a public high school alternative so they’ll stay in Forest Park.
“I thought a small arts and humanities magnet high school should be here as part of the Proviso district, and kids as from other parts of the district can come too,” he said.
“Parents have kids [in Forest Park] and leave when they get done with eighth grade,” he said.
Payton said applying to Proviso Math and Science Academy was not a sure thing and parents were not willing to wager on their child being accepted. That left a choice of Proviso East High School, private school or moving.
“It’s unrealistic to have any plan that says Proviso East is going to be a destination-of-choice for kids within Forest Park and we don’t have the power to make that change,” Payton said.
Payton said he would have liked to raise his own children through high school in Forest Park, but the combination of property taxes and private tuition, “was a killer.”
“We live in Brookfield and sent them to Riverside-Brookfield High School,” he said.
Timeline includes community input
The Comprehensive Plan has a 21-month timeline. The first event was an Open House at the Community Center in February. At that meeting, volunteers were sought to join the plan’s “Steering Committee.” According to Hansen, 33 residents signed up for the steering committee.
The committee met for the first time this Tuesday evening, after press time.
The last comprehensive plan, completed in 2001, had a 19-member steering committee, but Hansen insisted that 33 members was not an unwieldy number.
“No, we’re not concerned with the size of the committee,” Hansen said. “We do facilitation and communication with groups that are much larger than 30,” she said. Images, Inc. also works for the Illinois Department of Transportation Eisenhower corridor plan. IDOT has held informational community meetings for I-290 stakeholders for years as the Ike corridor plan is being discussed.
Hansen also said that she was not concerned that the steering committee might have people who loved the town but had no background in land use or village planning.
“We want to spread the web very wide and capture as many folks who are interested,” Hansen said. “If they care about the town, that’s enough of a qualification for me.”
In Hansen’s experience, ideas come from everywhere. “You might get the most interesting ideas from folks who may not have a technical background,” she added.
Five communities are taking part in the regional collaborative that includes new comprehensive plans for each, paid for, in part, by a $3 million HUD grant. Hansen said the West Cook County Housing Collaborative includes Forest Park, Oak Park, Berwyn, Bellwood and Maywood.
“There are regional issues associated with all of these communities,” Hansen said. “Obviously we share borders with these communities. You don’t plan in a vacuum, particularly in a metropolitan region,” she added.
“What happens within our borders affects what happens within their borders as well,” she said.
That said, Hansen said each town had to come up with its own comprehensive plan contract and consultant, and each town can craft the plan its own way.
“We have a great deal of autonomy in that,” Hansen said. “HUD does recognize they are five different communities.”
She said the grants had benchmark requirements for reporting and outreach, however. “They have outreach targets they want us to meet. What are we doing to get those folks to the table?”
Website comments are part of the mandated outreach, she said.
“This is a land planning document and most of good planning is based on common sense,” she said. “We want to hear from as many people as possible to make this a win/win.”
Finally, Hansen said listening to young people was one of the most interesting parts of planning for the future. That’s where talk of technological advances may influence how Forest Park sets up space for development.
“Some of the most inspiring feedback I’ve received doing this kind of work is from young people,” Hansen said.
After all, she said, “It’s a 20-year plan and who will be here 20 years from now? Whose community is this going to be? Their input is worthwhile.”
Hansen said later in the planning stages the company would be asking for student recommendations from PTHS District 209 and Fenwick High Schools to pick the brains of “about 10” high school students.
“I’m so encouraged by how bright our youth are,” she added.