July 9th, 2019 2:29 PM
Don't think I've ever asked him directly, but I've long believed that the impetus for Anan Abu-Taleb's unlikely candidacy for Oak Park village president six years ago was a public meeting about a plan to rebuild Oak Park Avenue, including the portion of the street directly in front of Maya del Sol, Abu-Taleb's restaurant.
(That would also make it directly in front of Wednesday Journal as I am looking out my window at Maya as I write this column.)
The meeting was for business owners in the Hemingway District who would be most impacted by this down-to-dirt rebuild of the street and the replacement of what were described to us as the ancient piping under the dirt. The meeting, held at Cheney Mansion, was well attended and, I thought, fairly forward looking by the village as it laid out plans for the lengthy construction and steps it would be taking to keep both business owners and customers informed about progress.
But Abu-Taleb was not having any of it. He felt blind-sided and said his business would be in danger if construction delays occurred, and he was pretty sure construction delays were certain. He was vocal that night, by far the most critical voice in the room.
And before long he was launching an independent run for village president on an "open for business" platform, determined to upend village government's mainly deserved reputation as being indifferent to existing businesses and committed to making the lives of potential new developers torturous with endless process and micro-meddling.
While Oak Park Avenue has yet to be rebuilt and the ancient pipes are up-to-this-minute still functioning, the full-on rebuilding of Lake Street from Harlem to Euclid (with simple repaving continuing to Austin Boulevard) is imminent — 2020 will be the year and Monday night the village board heard an update on a plan to convince shoppers that Lake Street will not be Armageddon, that parking spaces are nearby, that local businesses really need support during extended construction and that, in the end, there will be a BetterLakeStreet.com.
That would be the website. BetterLakeStreet.com. There will also be Lake Street OPen for Business banners, window clings, table tents, sidewalk stencils, social media, and perhaps skywriting, all intended to persuade us to keep shopping and dining.
The paid consultant on this project is Jim Prescott, an Oak Park communications guy, best known as the tall building whisperer. Prescott has been the go-to guy for developers of multiple high-rises along Lake Street who needed a local fellow to help them wend their way to the promised land of construction permits. And with the exception of the now seemingly dead Golub plan to build 28 stories next door to the now internationally UNESCO World Heritage-recognized Frank Lloyd Wright Unity Temple, Prescott has been successful.
Our still not particularly in sync new village board was supportive Monday of the initial communications plans for the Lake Street rebuild. We will see how they react come fall when leaders of Downtown Oak Park, the Hemingway District and the Pleasant District come before them during budget season to demand a chunk of cash to fund a rebate program to entice shoppers to be loyal even as asphalt gives way to mud.
Political leaders sometimes rise up out of unexpected fissures. Jane Byrne became Chicago's mayor when a complacent Michael Bilandic failed to plow the streets after a major storm. Donald Trump, well, enough about Donald Trump. Anan Abu-Taleb entered the fray worried over village government's capacity to run a major construction project efficiently and to communicate clearly with business owners in that process.
Now he's got his own major project to manage and we will see how that works out for him.