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Council Members Reflect On 'Brief, Shining Moment'

Departing city councilmen look back on their legacy in transforming Highland Park.

An overall progressive body of work is the legacy that city councilmen Larry Silberman, Scott Levenfeld and hope people will remember as they prepare to leave office Monday after 22 collective years on the city’s legislature. 

“It was a body of work for what I refer to as a brief shining moment, which I felt was Camelot,” Silberman said. “It was one accomplishment after another. I was proud of how the discourse with the public was raised, I think, to a very effective and highly intellectual level.” 

Silberman and Levenfeld joined the council in May 2003. That was also when became the city’s top elected official after he served two terms on the City Council.

Olian joined the group two years later when she was appointed to complete the term of Mari Barnes, who had been elected Moraine Township supervisor. 

Silberman, a Highland Park native, described his election along with Belsky and Levenfeld as a completion of a generational shift that brought in a group of people who grew up with the children of then-departing members like. No member remained from the senior group. 

“I remember saying something in my inauguration speech about the torch being passed to a new generation of Highland Parkers, paraphrasing a beloved statesman,” Silberman said. “I felt that Mike [Belsky] immediately was apolitical and focused on what I thought were elevated issues.” 

Levenfeld, Olian and Silberman spoke to Patch with pride about tackling such issues as affordable housing, environmental initiatives, business development and other programs. They were also pleased when Highland Park went beyond its borders to help victims of natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina that struck the Gulf states in 2005 and . 

Law became a model for state

Belsky bemoaned the effect a decade ago when one older home after another was being demolished to build a newer, larger one. He thought the newer houses were raising property values and taxes beyond the means of existing longtime residents. The council turned it into something positive. 

With a strong belief people who work in Highland Park—police officers, firefighters, teachers and others—should be able to live in town, an affordable-housing ordinance was passed that became the model for the state. 

“It [affordable housing] was begun while Mike and Steve [Mandel] were on the council,” Silberman said, referring to the mayor and councilman, respectively. “The full adoption and implementation of the Community Land Trust, the tear down tax that helped to fund acquisition of property and investments in affordable development [happened during his term].” 

Each time a home was demolished to make way for a new one, the city required the builder to pay a $10,000 fee. The money went into the Community Land Trust to help fund the city’s affordable-housing project.

The program has since been relabeled the Community Partners for Affordable Housing

“It’s a very important social issue as well as providing the kind of law that won’t drive away our citizens,” said Levenfeld, who is also pleased the ordinance became a model for the state. 

Levenfeld sees changes in Highland Park’s land-use philosophy as another contributor to affordable-housing and development within community standards overall. 

“We had real changes to neighborhoods by regulating variables,” he said. “We allowed the FAR to be based on lot size rather than zoning districts.” 

FAR referes to floor-area ratio that makes the size of a house suitable to its lot. 

Pushing economic development

Olian considers the government’s contribution to economic development another part of the collaborative effort of the City Council during her six years. 

“I see one of the major changes that has occurred in the last few years is a clear focus on economic development through our Downtown Business Alliance and the Business and Economic Development Commission,” Olian said 

“I really think there has been great progress made toward economic development and the role the city is playing in it,” she added. “I’m very proud of being involved in that.”

Olian, who made in the April 5 elections, is also thrilled with the progress being made in commercial areas away from downtown. 

Silberman and Olian are also proud of the way the city has worked with all interested parties such as business owners, landlords and organized groups to improve the business climate in Highland Park and, with it, its sales tax revenue. 

“What’s really unique of what we do is we aggressively took on the role of trying to sit in the chair of someone who owns a major metropolitan mall,” Silberman said. “We can help direct the dialogue to be productive to have the stakeholders work together. That’s what the city is about.” 

One of Olian’s contributions to the community was her effort with . Initially a youth program to showcase young talent in the city, it provides entertainment at restaurants and other establishments on Friday and Saturday nights. It also has an economic impact. 

“This has helped the businesses through this economic time,” said Olian. “It is also an economic development program. We’ve done those things without having to go to our taxpayers for dollars.” 

Olian has also procured grants to maintain certain projects like the Shorelines, a publication aimed at senior citizens. This was another way she retained a service without the use of tax dollars. 

Other initiatives

More recently, Levenfeld thought his opposition to the use of cellular telephones while driving helped lead to the city’s . Levenfeld, Belsky and Mandel . 

“All the research indicated talking or texting on a cellular device while driving is hazardous,” Levenfeld said. “It is distracting to drivers and, therefore, causes accidents.”

While he would have wanted a total ban, the departing councilman was pleased with the effort and the eventual result.

“It’s a start” Levenfeld said. 

During their years on the City Council, Highland Park also aggressively pursued commercial recycling. What began with Mandel and Belsky -- before Silberman, Levenfeld and Olian took their seats -- came to fruition on their watch. 

“Highland Park is a leader in commercial recycling,” said Levenfeld, who cites the recent efforts to foster the use of as a natural continuation of the city’s environmental efforts. 

Silberman sees commercial recycling and many of the other efforts as examples of the City Council's approach to exploring new and innovative ways to help Highland Park make progress.

 “It [the council] was willing to be educated. It was willing to study [the issue],” Silberman said. “There was pragmatism. It is how we approached the issues rather than a dogmatic knee-jerk [reaction].” 

While changes that will occur with the and three new councilmen Monday may not be a generational shift, it will bring in more new faces than the swearing-in event eight years ago. 

Councilwoman will replace Belsky. Councilmen-elect , and will take the seats of Silberman, Levenfeld and Olian.

Rotering has promised to name her replacement in about a month, ending . The appointee means there will be four new faces on the council. Only Councilmen Jim Kirsch and Mandel will remain from the Belsky years and before. Rotering served during the last two years of Belsky’s tenure.

"I feel very fortunate to have been a part of what is a very diverse, interested, incredibly competent and well-schooled group of dedicated individuals," Silberman said.

Watch a video of the departing city council members reflecting on their terms by clicking the image above.

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