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Streetscape questions need answers before vote

THE ISSUE: Ottawa commissioners ask: Who will pay?

OUR VIEW: Aussem, Less do right by voters in asking important questions

“Who will pay?”

For our money — and yours — there’s no better question a public official could ask in an open meeting. So hats off to Ottawa Commissioners Dan Aussem and James Less for doing just that Tuesday during discussion of a proposed contract to involve a downtown Chicago landscape architecture firm in the renovation of Jackson Street between Columbus and La Salle streets.

Wolff Landscape Architecture, a Chicago firm, is looking for $18,200 to be involved in converting part of Jackson, currently a one-way block, into a pedestrian mall and marketplace. That change is part of a larger retail renovation of the old Woolworth and Carson buildings to the immediate south, under the auspices of developer C.L. Enterprises.

The question is not whether Wolff is worth the money. In the company’s favor, we note its advertised services include planning, streetscape and urban design, landscape architecture and historic landscape preservation, and that its impressive, award-winning portfolio includes downtown Chicago landscape renovations on State Street and Michigan Avenue as well as roof gardens and the Ravinia Festival outdoor music venue in Highland Park.

Rather, the question is to what degree taxpayers should be on the hook for a private project that happens to incorporate a public thoroughfare.

Aussem said he recalled C.L. Enterprises, when making the development proposal, saying it would cover such costs. Less questioned Mayor Bob Eschbach’s assertion that Wolff would be reviewing concepts, saying his reading of the contract didn’t square with the mayor’s.

Ultimately the Tuesday meeting ended with the issue unresolved. Yet unless something changes, the contract will be up for a vote at the council’s next meeting.

Clearly the council can’t vote to approve this type of expenditure without a complete understanding of what the money is for and whether the money ultimately comes out of public accounts. And although some residents would inherently oppose any such effort while others would just as readily endorse, the reality is there remains time to put all the facts forward so commissioners can cast an informed vote, weighing both their personal feelings about the best choice for the future of the city as well as the input from an equally informed public.

Whether reality will play out in that idealized fashion remains to be seen, but we call on our elected officials to make sure such questions are answered before taking any action. Public works projects like this are not so essential as to be rushed into without due diligence. And while we agree certain public-private projects yield enough reward to a municipality so as to justify spending taxpayer revenue, we reserve the right to hold off on full endorsement without a better understanding of the likely costs and benefits.

It would seem unfair to presume anyone involved in this effort has bad intentions. But when elected officials have questions, it’s a good bet that many voters do as well. So let’s get those questions answered in full and then we’ll all be ready to offer an up or down vote based purely on the merits.

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