By Garret Eakin
Oak Park did the right thing — something to be proud of — and addressed an acute need. Affordable housing for single tenants is less than sexy. It is not an issue we like to face, much less have to fight with the some of the neighbors who cried out, "Not in my backyard!"
In December of 2011 when I wrote an article of support, it was the hot topic of the village. A proposed 51-unit apartment building built on top of, and within, a historic building designed by internationally known Detroit architect, Albert Kahn, who is best recognized for his austere concrete modernist-style architecture. The original two-story concrete-and-brick portion was built for the local Cadillac dealership as a showroom and maintenance facility. It is a rare surviving example of this master architect's work in the Chicago area.
Dennis Langley, of Weese Langley Weese Architects Ltd., was the architect of this adaptive reuse, and Perry Vietti of Interfaith Housing Development Corporation was the developer. They took on the challenge of integrating 51 small apartments and a retail space on Madison within a historic building. The completed project is a handsome combination of Kahn's two-story façade, an urban building built to the sidewalk and a solid sympathetic L-shaped addition.
The long-empty building was previously owned and occupied by Comcast. The media company "modernized" the façade in 1981 by covering the brick and concrete with EIFS, or Dryvit, cladding.
The repurposing of the building involved restoring the façade and creating a mixed-use combination of supportive housing and retail space. "Supportive housing" is defined as a combination of housing and social services, intended as a cost-effective way to help people live more stable and productive lives.
The apartments are small one-bedroom units (425 to 475 square feet), 12 of which have accessible baths and kitchens. The plans are designed for flexibility and durability — nothing fancy but way better than the alternatives.
The design strategy removed the interior (car ramp and elevator shaft) while restoring the façade. Two stories have been added that match the brick and concrete patterns to form an L-shaped footprint. The residential entrance is placed on the quiet west elevation, oriented to the parking lot across the street.
On the south side, a landscaped courtyard is inserted as a buffer between the homes on Grove and providing for geo-thermal systems for 100% heating and cooling of the building. The project is planned to be LEEDs Certified, employing sustainable elements: permeable pavers, a live green roof, adapted native planting, recycled construction waste, bike racks and a central heat pump.
Logically arranged off the lobby is a building office, a community room, a kitchen, men and women's toilets, Catholic Charities offices and various rooms serving the building and tenants.
This no-nonsense planning is bright and open, anticipating the needs of the occupants.
The interior contains an L-shaped corridor with new fire stairs at each end and a large elevator and laundry centrally located to create a bit of a social node. Windows at the ends of the corridor brighten the long narrow spaces reduced the light requirements while framing the view outdoors.
Small details can greatly improve the quality of life in a project, such as dark wood cabinets, patterned vinyl floors, and tall ceilings (11 feet and higher, with an abundance of proportionate windows).
"The choice of materials and colors," Langley explains, "make every attempt to avoid an institutional image."
This unique project is good for the tenants, for Oak Park and for our planet. The single residents are working poor for minimum wage, may have lived at home with their parents, or may be wheelchair bound. They want to be independent and remain in the village yet cannot afford the market-rate housing in the community and therefore may be pushed out.
The complex (at $690 per month) targeted this community and is fully occupied, proving the demand for this living style. The village contains a sizable inventory of apartments; unfortunately it is rare to find an accessible unit at an affordable rate.
Oak Park will benefit by returning the property to a fully taxable property. It will also retain these less fortunate residents within the community — close to their jobs, friends and relatives.
It is good for our planet because of all the sustainable elements and the retention of the historic structure. The Madison and Grove redevelopment along with the Walgreens store across the street serve as creative demonstrations of how historic preservation, new technology and architecture can be visionary by "doing the right thing."
Garret Eakin is a practicing architect, preservation commissioner, and an adjunct professor at the School of the Art Institute.