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After weeks of hearings, neighbors of a controversial Madison Street development proposal finally got a chance to speak their minds before the Oak Park Plan Commission last week.
In a packed council chambers at Oak Park Village Hall, with more than 90 people attending, residents made their case for why the four-story, 51-unit complex for low-income singles should move forward — or get shot down. Some argued that the building fits perfectly with Oak Park's history of fair housing and inclusiveness. On the other side, opponents argued that the building is a solution looking for a problem, one that would likely wreck the character of the surrounding neighborhood.
"What if, as is the case with housing projects, the neighborhood loses its stability and deteriorates?" said Amy Pappageorge, who lives on the 400 block of South Grove, just north of the proposed project. "What will become of this harmonious and beloved neighborhood? Will families feel compelled to move out? How many of us lose sleep at night as we consider these possible scenarios that could uproot everything we hold dear — our home, our cherished neighbors, our roots in Oak Park?"
Opponents repeatedly criticized the project for being limited to people who earn less than $26,300, rather than a mix of wage earners. Such an approach would segregate and isolate such people, said critics. Demetrios Pappageorge argued that there would be no reason for tenants to better themselves — because they would no longer qualify to live there if they boosted their income or married someone.
"What motivation will there be for betterment?" he asked.
Chris Koertge argued that there are too many uncertainties with the project — from the exact nature of the tenants, to whether the developer can line up a commercial tenant for the ground-floor retail space.
"There are too many holes," he said. "The zoning variances requested of the board must not be approved, based on trust and good intentions alone. I urge you to reject the variances that the applicant has submitted. Without considerably more substance and certainty, the project as planned not only does not belong in my backyard, it doesn't belong in anyone's backyard."
Chicago-based Interfaith Housing Corp. is hoping to buy the long-vacant property at 820 W. Madison, which was formerly a facility for Comcast. They plan to gut it, strip off and restore the façade and add two floors to transform the property into something resembling its original appearance from the 1920s, when it was a Cadillac auto dealership, designed by architect Albert Kahn.
But to do so, they need eight variances from the local zoning ordinance. The proposed building is too tall, too dense and doesn't provide enough parking, so Interfaith needs a go-ahead from the plan commission.
Residents in support of the project urged commissioners to grant the allowances and enable the project to reach the next step.
Anne Frueh, of the 600 block of Wenonah, said her 22-year-old son and many of her nieces and nephews would qualify to live in the building.
"People who live in these places are not strangers," she said. "They're our neighbors; they're people who serve us food; they're maybe our own children; and this development would provide fundamental supports that every community should provide to its members."
Doug Schenkelberg, of the 1100 block of Ridgeland, believes people can argue over the technical aspects of the project, but everyone eventually needs to unite to support it. Schenkelberg related what he told his 8-year-old son when asked why his family is in favor of the development.
"We support this because when we do, we're being the best version of ourselves," he said. "We support it because we moved to Oak Park to be in an inclusive and diverse community that opened itself to people from all walks of life so that they all had opportunities. We support projects like this because we may need it someday ourselves."
David Kralik, of the 500 block of Highland, said he's in favor because the developers plan to restore an old building; it's being done carefully; and it will fill what he believes is a pressing need in the community.
"When our disabled relative or neighbor can no longer afford to live in Oak Park, we collectively lose a great deal," he said.
The plan commission is scheduled to pick up again on Feb. 3, when members will hear more testimony from citizens opposed to the project. The commission hopes to make a recommendation to the village board in March.