Schiess and 'The Russian' rebuild OP a parcel at a time

It's as much for what they're about to do as what they've done that we name John Schiess and Alex Troyanovsky the 2004 Villagers of the Year.

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If you've never heard the name Alex Troyanovsky, don't feel bad. There are real estate development insiders who know him only as "The Russian."

He doesn't want notoriety, to be interviewed or to talk with neighbors or testify at zoning board hearings on the projects that make him millions.

But quietly Troyanovsky has amassed a handful of some of the most important development properties in Oak Park, including the recently obtained Bank One parking lot on Marion Street (see sidebar, this page).

Other sites include the former Mar Lac House at Marion Street and South Boulevard, five parcels on Madison Street near Oak Park Avenue (with a sixth, the Comcast parking lot, in negotiations), and one to three parcels on the corner of Oak Park Avenue and South Boulevard.

At a time when other developers seemingly fear Oak Park's open planning process, Troyanovsky has found a way?#34;and a man?#34;to successfully shepherd projects to the finish: architect John Schiess.

"I'd like to think that we've figured out a way to work with neighbors," Schiess said, describing arguments over projects as having many shades of gray that need to be understood and worked into "feasible solutions."

Although Schiess often does the tasks developers usually do, he has no financial stake in the projects he handles for developers, other than his fees, which he says he receives regardless of whether a project gets built or not. That's important to Schiess, who sees himself as an advocate for both the community and his investors.

"If I had a financial incentive, I couldn't stand up [at a hearing] and say, 'This is the best project for this site,' he said.

Building goodwill
"Every project has a bottom line," Schiess said?#34;the number of stories or units a developer sees as being necessary to be profitable. "But it's hardly ever that black-and-white."

Troyanovsky bought the former Mar Lac site from Granite Realty Partners, which had tried to develop the property through the Planned Unit Development (PUD) process. The PUD process allows a property owner to ask for relief from zoning requirements, and allows neighbors of the proposed development to weigh in on the project.

In taking his own proposal, a building he dubbed the Opera Club, through the PUD process, Schiess told neighbors that anything shorter than a seven-story development wouldn't be financially doable. Neighbors dug in for going no higher than five stories.

Back at the drawing board, Troyanovsky gave Schiess the go-ahead to lower the building to six stories, something that cut $1.2 million out of the profitability of the $17 million project, Schiess said.

"It very much was a conscious effort on Alex's part" to build goodwill, Schiess said. "I really don't see that ever happening again."

Troyanovsky and Schiess are not exclusive to each other. But Schiess calls the Russian his "most preferred client by far," and the two have developed sites in Chicago, Glenview, Skokie, Brookfield and Buffalo Grove, the town where the Oak Park Development Group (the company Troyanovsky operates under) is located according to 2004 state records.

The two understand each other, and have similar ways of doing business?#34;sort of a financial karma that Schiess described as doing what's right on a project will come back to them on another one.

They met when Troyanovsky, after hearing about Schiess through another client, walked in the front door of Schiess' office. He asked Schiess if he could fit 12 condos on a lot of certain dimensions in Oak Park. Schiess knew which lot he was referring to, and told Troyanovsky he could build 14 condos there. That became the Maple Square Townhomes at 641 Maple Ave.

Asked why Troyanovsky?#34;who Schiess described as being a fit, good-looking, early-40s man who still plays semi-professional ice hockey?#34;prefers to remain behind the scenes, Schiess explained that, simply, that's the arrangement.

Design and build
Born in Guatemala, Schiess' father was Swiss and mother was Spanish. The family came to the West Side of Chicago when he was 7.

Schiess attended St. Catherine's before the family moved to Glen Ellyn. He attended Glenbard North High School, Southern Illinois University, and University of Illinois at Chicago to study architecture.

Schiess always wanted to be an architect, loving to draw at an early age. He was a cartoonist for his college paper. According to a family tale?#34;perhaps a tall one?#34;Schiess told his nanny in Guatemala that one day he would build her a house.

Growing up speaking Spanish and being around construction sites have helped shape his career too, he said. Schiess is an architect and a builder. The combination means he never has to relinquish control of a project when handing over designs to be built. Instead, he is able to extend the creative process into construction, making changes to a building if something doesn't look as good in reality as it did in his head.

Amid construction of Madison Square, a large townhouse project on Madison Street, Schiess was on vacation in Paris. Brickwork on a building there struck a cord. He got his sketchbook and recorded the design, incorporating it into his own building after he returned to the States, infuriating the brick mason.

"I could not have done that if I was not in the design build mode," Schiess said. "And I think that made the project better." The mason later agreed, Schiess said.

His work with developers goes back to the early part of his career. While working for the Chicago architecture firm of Nagle Hartray (now officially Nagle Hartray Danker Kagan McKay Penney), the firm that designed the Oak Park Public Library, Schiess managed the design of Girabaldi Square Townhomes, a 128-unit development on Chicago's near West Side. He was later hired by the company developing the site to oversee construction.

Neighbors are key
Whiteco, still mired in controversy over its Harlem and Ontario proposal, had an opportunity to get free advice from Schiess. He was approached by a Whiteco rep while at village hall. His Madison Square Townhomes had just been OK'd, and Whiteco was in its first bid for approval.

But no one followed up, he said. If they had, this is what he would have told them: Talk to neighbors early on in the process.

"We initiate change, and change is very difficult for people to manage," Schiess said. The burden is on the group making the change to reach out to neighbors, and people respond much differently when they "are allowed to be genuinely part of the process.

"I didn't make anything up.... I don't think [what we do] is proprietary," he said.

He estimated Whiteco could have cut two years out of the approval process if it had asked neighbors for input before unveiling a plan.

But Schiess has his own obstacles. A recent project in Brookfield has been delayed a year after neighbors waged strong opposition to Schiess' design of a townhouse development that would replace a longtime seafood restaurant building.

Public hearings on the development have been bitter, he admits, but part of his approach is to continue talking with neighbors.

"It's very much a process that keeps unfolding," Schiess said.

He continues to talk with neighbors of the Brookfield property, and is developing a compromise plan.

"I don't want to ramrod anything through," he said.

That Schiess believes in neighborhoods can be seen in the way he's set up his office at 905 S. Home Ave. Tucked slightly into the residential neighborhood to the south?#34;in which he and his family live?#34;the office has the warmth and scale of a house, with small wood stairs leading down to an architect's rumpus room. Taller folks need to bend a bit to avoid hitting their heads as they climb the stairs.

Neighbors know him, the dog-catcher knows to bring the family pup to the office after he's bettered the fence at home, and Schiess knows he can catch a glimpse of his son walking home from high school past the office if he times it right.

The legacy he hopes to leave?#34;something more important to him now at age 48 than ever before?#34;is that "what we did would reflect a sense of how we do things."

Striving to please neighbors is a matter of "self preservation," he said: he'd like to be able to go to Rehm Pool without someone bending his ear about a project.

His challenge, then, is to translate good relationships into architectural language, using materials, detailing and scale.

With Troyanovsky's backing, it seems he'll have plenty of chances to practice.


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