Neighbors take aim at bank drive-thru proposal

Rendering courtesy of Hezner Corporation

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By KATHERINE GALO

The proposed new bank drive-thru would be right up their alley?#34;and adjacent neighbors don't like it one bit. The Oak Park Plan Commission held a public hearing last Thursday to consider the application of Community Bank of Oak Park and River Forest for a special-use permit, and the citizens who live near Van Buren Street and Grove Avenue came prepared to comment and cross-examine.

Community Bank founder and president, Marty Noll, and Kurt Hezner of the Hezner Corporation, meanwhile, came prepared to testify. It was a crowded meeting, as the hearing provided an opportunity for community members to give their testimony and cross-examine Community Bank. Noll and Hezner gave a detailed, thorough outline of their proposal, beginning with a statement of Community Bank's dedication to the community. "With every change, decision-making gets further from the community ... we have attempted to change that," Noll said, outlining the need for modern banks to incorporate drive-thru capacity. "Drive-up ability is synonymous with banks because of what it allows the driver to do safely and quickly."

Hezner described the physical layout and schematics of the proposed facility, paying particular attention to the incorporation of the bank into the existing Oak Park Avenue architecture, the construction of the drive-thru openings, and the use of the adjacent alley.

Commission members spent a great deal of time questioning Noll and Hezner, which Noll later commended them for. "They're interested in understanding what we're tying to do," said Noll. "It's clear that they've done their homework."

In response to the frequent questions about parking, drive-thru construction, and alley use, Noll said he appreciated the level of the commission's concern. "You can't talk about anything in Oak Park without talking about parking," said Commissioner Penny Wallingford, and Noll agreed. "This is a traffic-producing business," he said.

After a short break, the commission's quiet, detail-driven questions gave way to community cross-examinations from Stephen Murphy, Lincoln and Christina Lounsbury, Milt Clark, and Vince Bray. The questioning was tense, sometimes emotional, and dealt primarily with parking, traffic, and the use of the alley.

Lincoln Lounsbury questioned Community Bank's comparison to the other branches, asking if it had done comparative research on Fifth Third and Charter One's banks, also on Oak Park Avenue. Christina Lounsbury asked, "Am I the only person in the room who sees the alley as an alley and not a street?" Vince Bray and Milt Clark asked questions about other possible property areas and the bank's ability to schedule driving in an already-congested alley.

A large number of the questions were tabled until a second meeting with the traffic engineer who worked on the project.

When asked if there were other properties that Community Bank could have built on, Noll answered that there had been other properties considered, and, for various reasons, including availability, lot size, and traffic flow, weren't chosen.

"The owners [of several locations] had been approached to purchase, but for one reason or another, they weren't interested in selling," said Noll, including the gas station at the corner of Van Buren Street and Oak Park Avenue. "We looked at at least a half a dozen possibilities in South Oak Park, but the best-situated possibilities were not available to us, and the owners would not sell."

With the postponing of the hearing's conclusion until the meeting with the traffic engineer, residents who had come to testify to the commission were frustrated and upset.

"This alley is unlike any other alley in Oak Park," said Lincoln Lounsbury. "I would like someone to show me an alley in Oak Park with residences and this traffic situation."

Milt Clark, who plans to submit a petition for denial signed by three Oak Park Avenue businesses and neighboring residents, argued that the issues go beyond the alley, saying, "Community Bank needs to find a better location or withdraw the proposal."

Due to the late hour of the meeting and the unanswered traffic questions, Plan Commission Chair Colette Lueck postponed the hearing's completion until Nov. 17 when residents will have a chance to testify against or for the bank's proposal.

As Noll noted, "Nothing gets done very easily in Oak Park."

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