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There was an old lady who swallowed a pool...

Warning: Transportation geek-ery ahead! This post is the tale of a pool & a parking garage. Boring stuff, probably...unless you live in Oak Park. 

Only in Oak Park. 

Let me preface my comments about Monday night's Transportation Commission meeting by saying that I lived next to a school in another state for about 5 years while I was in law school and the immediate few years after. The lights from the junior high sports field shined directly into our living room several nights a week. The cars for soccer and baseball games would park near the entrance to our apartment complex--along the side of the road leading to the school building. Crowds of students coming to school and leaving school each day. And an amazing thing happened...nobody cared. Now, don't get me wrong, that particular city had its own particular set of peculiar goings-on. Each town does. It's just hard for me, as a relative outsider, to get worked up in the same way that my fellow villagers do about...well...parking. 

Some of it the village brings on itself. We babysit residents with rules. Lots of them. Park here. Don't park there. Feed the meter. Don't back in. If snow falls move your car to the opposite side of the street if it's a day ending in the letter y. Get a sticker. Get a permit. Get a pass. Get a ticket. We have daytime rules. Night rules. Snow rules.

Last night's feedback from residents went about like everybody predicted. Mostly negative from residents in the area who have concerns. We should try to minimize the impacts felt by them. But we also need to look at the bigger picture. 

But let me back up with a little history. We met inside OPRFHS Monday evening because of a chain of events that goes something like this...In the early 2000's, the village and school district entered into an agreement to build a parking garage with 300 spaces to alleviate congestion around the school. Now, the school district has decided its nearly 100 year old pools (two of them) are beyond repair (they really are) and are trying to find a suitable location for an Olympic-sized indoor swimming pool. For $37.5 million. And, long story short, the location they picked is where the parking garage sits. And now the Transportation Commission is being asked to come up with a parking plan for the school neighborhood to recommend to the Village Trustees. 

I'm pro-pool. I'm pro-"tear the garage down if we have to." And I'm pretty neutral about what the parking plan should be. Look, you have a high school with 3,300 students sitting in the middle of a neighborhood. It's a community resource in a landlocked town of 50,000 where we're built-out and have no room to grow other than up. Traffic around that school is inevitable. And the real job here is to minimize conflict. Not eliminate it. I don't think transportation planning is meant to solve every daily struggle a network user has. We can definitely try to set users up for success where we know problems exist. But I'm also not sure that means micromanagement. Why can't students, staff, visitors, and homeowners all find a way to co-exist on a block on their own without explicitly being told how to behave? For example, bike lanes that separate users are nice, but we all manage to usually share the road if signs are not there. By navigating social customs, norms, the law, and safety, we drive our cars and ride our bikes without incident. The town ordinances or police or road signs don't need to be out there every 10 feet telling you to "pass with care." That should be the expectation...even if it's often not what we encounter in real life. 

I had very little worth saying at the meeting because none of my words were--strictly speaking--relevant. Things got a little heated all-around...residents confused by the process. The commission trying to take community input without anything concrete to really offer in return. What is our task? If you bring a plan to us, we'll be happy to pick it apart and make a recommendation for changes and say what we like. We can do that. On the other hand, we have an amazing group of 7 individual commissioners who could probably brainstorm some interesting, thoughtful solutions. But do we have time for that? The ball seems to be rolling on pool planning. Is our task to get something out the door quickly? I thought village staff got some undue criticism, frankly. They don't have the answers partly because of the way we're being asked to go about this. The intergovernmental, controversial, quasi-hypothetical nature of the whole proposal and formal process remind me of being in middle school again. "If Jane asks you to the dance would you say yes? She really wants to go with Bobby, but he already asked Tina so Jane wants you to come to dinner beforehand with Bobby and Tina so we can make them jealous." The best, most-honest approach to this whole thing is to not tiptoe around the inevitable. A pool is being built. The garage is coming down. Cars will be parked in the neighborhood surrounding the high school. Now, what can we do to help with that? 

Some great ideas were tossed around about shuttle buses, using other village-owned parking garages, facilitating bike commuting or ride sharing, and more. The fact that the high school has closed the campus helps. Not all students have access to off-campus lunch now. That should probably continue and will be essential in avoiding neighborhood problems that previously existed pre-garage. But that's no exactly a "transportation" issue. That's something the high school can do to help themselves. Sucky for the students...I remember how different it feels being allowed off-campus during the school day.

We heard from residents. But we didn't hear from teachers or students about what their parking needs will be post-garage. A number of residents asked about expanding the zone farther afield from the high school...then that would require getting input from those residents about minimizing their traffic impact. Where does it stop? Ultimately, it's the village's responsibility to decide what the best use of the streets will be and execute.

Like the little old lady who swallowed a spider, we're making a plan because of the garage that was torn down because of a pool that had no space because of a (insert more verses) long line of causation. It borders on the ridiculous though I certainly knew that's what I was signing up for when I volunteered to serve on the Transportation Commission. I certainly don't envy village staff or the village board since they're the ones who will ultimately be dealing with this long after we've done our duty.

Now ask me how many teachers per block should be allowed to park in front of a neighborhood residence. If you ask a student you'll get a different answer than the owner of a single-family home. So, for me, it comes back to what the highest use of the location should be. I come back to the high school being a community resource so it should be open to the community. I appreciate property owners around the high school having very real past damage and hassle from open parking. But I also have sympathy for the 4000 or so people who don't live in the area and have to make their way to the high school each day. The fairest solution here needs to offer a variety of options for all involved to find parking, commute, and utilize the limited street frontage. Perhaps the creation of a special use pass that allows the user to park within set boundaries? Maybe we do need a rotating schedule of blocks available for parking as some have suggested?

My guide going forward is going to be asking myself whether whatever proposal is on the table has considered everyone equally as a stakeholder. That doesn't necessarily mean the outcome will be equal for everyone. But everyone involved from Farmer's Market patrons to football fans to pedestrians needs an advocate in the eventual plan. Hopefully that changes as we move forward because I didn't get that feeling on Monday. 

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