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Editor's note: This story has been changed slightly from the original version. Attribution of one misattributed quote has been deleted. Wednesday Journal regrets the error.
Emotions ran high Wednesday evening at a public meeting to discuss the proposed makeover of Madison Street's long-vacant Comcast building into housing for "working-poor singles."
Around 40 neighbors and residents — close to 50/50 opposed and in favor — spoke to a standing-room-only crowd in the Veteran's Room at the main branch of the library. Interfaith Housing Development Corporation seeks to transform a building neighbors agreed was an "eyesore" into 51 apartments for low-income tenants who earn less than $26,400 annually (half the local median income).
Perry Vietti, the chief operating officer of IHDC, presented renderings by architect Dennis Langley of the original brick and decorative limestone skin, currently obscured by a crumbling cement façade. "This is a repurposing of an existing building instead of new construction." The building proposal is LEED certified and "very green," said Vietti.
But it was the expected tenancy of the new building that roiled the crowd. Vietti said that low-income tenants would be screened for verification of income and household size. The units are intended for single persons, at least 18 years of age — or a single adult with a child under 18 —who ideally live or work in Oak Park. "These might be veterans, low-wage workers or persons with disabilities who have an ability to live independently." Social services for residents would be provided by Catholic Charities.
Neighbors had mixed feelings about the proposed use of the building at Madison Street and Grove Avenue.
"As a paralegal for the Law Project of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, I encounter on a daily basis individuals who would benefit from this project," said Claire Lombardo. "I work full time and last year earned around $15,000. A building like this would not only be accessible to people like my clients, but people like myself." Lombardo lives on the 800 block of South Grove Avenue with her parents.
Meridith Hill of the 500 block of South Grove told the group, "I am a person with a disability and I would like to be your neighbor in an apartment of my own. We already live here. We are your friends and neighbors. Let's face it, I don't want to live with my parents forever."
Many speakers asked the developers to consider mixed-income units. Anxiety was evident about a building occupied by only low-income tenants. "Putting people in a building like that creates its own ghetto," said a woman who owns a condo in the 30-plus unit building at the north end of the 400 block of Grove.
"My biggest concern is security," said neighbor Julie O'Shea, of the 400 block of South Grove, who said the block already had Section 8 apartments close to her home. "I don't expect every low-income person to be dealing drugs. But they may be on the fringes of life and maybe desperate and looking at our beautiful homes and at our garages."
Several speakers objected to a lack of 24-hour supervisors in the building. One person making that objection was the owner of a nearby six-flat. "I can't imagine having 51 units without a manager on site," she said. Vietti told Wednesday Journal that support staff and social workers from Catholic Charities will be on the site seven days a week, including evenings and weekends, but that having a full-time desk person would cost $100,000.
In the next few months, IHDC will seek building code variances from the village's Plan Commission to add two stories to the property: making it 55 feet instead of the maximum 50 feet allowed. The plan proposes 51 units up from 40 allowed. Also, the plan proposes 32 parking spots, fewer than required but an adequate number, Vietti insisted, for low-income residents in a "transit rich" neighborhood. "[For the most part] they don't have cars," said Vietti. A female voice yelled, "Their friends have cars!"
Members of Neighbors for Madison Renewal presented the results of a survey answered by 342 residents within a four block radius of the project. Seventy-four percent of residents within one block opposed it. Of the entire sample, 60 percent of respondents opposed the project with 30 percent in favor and 9 percent undecided.
The survey listed "density" as the most-disliked feature. Vietti pointed out that the neighborhood is already dense. The 400 block of Grove has fewer than a dozen single family homes. Large, multiunit buildings sit on the north end of the block and neighboring streets such as Kenilworth and Oak Park Avenue are lined with apartment buildings.
Some speakers urged the crowd not to let the opportunity to develop the building slip through their fingers.
"When you look on Madison Street, how much development do you see? Then look on Madison in Forest Park and even east on Austin," said Dave Hill of the 500 block of South Grove. "I'm afraid we're looking a gift horse in the mouth here."
Others called on the village's history of inclusion in housing. "People of Oak Park 40 years ago decided to be different. I ask that we revisit that history and the courage that Oak Parkers had to embrace change," said Rick Ashton of the 200 block of North Marion Street.
Bob Haisman of the 600 block of South Grove said he had toured other developments run by IHDC and was impressed by their "quality, cleanliness, and rules and regulations."
"I believe Oak Park is a better place. I moved here because it was a diverse community who promised — bragged about — social justice. It was the place I wanted to be. For my neighbors who perhaps don't agree with me I think we need to sit down and talk."