By Anna Lothson
The second community forum hosted by Village President Anan Abu-Taleb — this time accompanied by Trustee Adam Salzman — kicked off with a vocal group of residents asking about one topic that's got some unanswered questions: the proposed Lake and Forest development.
"I think it's time for the village to face the fact that we made a deal with a developer who is an excellent salesman," said Tom Gallagher, a longtime villager active in development. "Cut him loose, set him into the sunset and find a real developer with some expertise."
Oak Park resident Julie Samuels, who is co-chairperson of the Citizens for Community Conversation group, was the moderator for forum held at Cheney Mansion Tuesday evening. Following the first question Samuels asked the crowd if people agreed with the first comment; a handful did, but a few supported the village giving the current developers one more chance.
Responding mid-meeting to the range of commenters, Abu-Taleb sought a middle ground, telling the group the village should demand positive proof that the developer has locked-in financing before an extension might be granted. But he expressed skepticism that such proof could be offered.
Former village trustee Galen Gockel posed an alternative to the board members, suggesting there may be other developers interested in the project and wondered if it was feasible for Oak Park to purchase the private portion of the public/private development property cheaply.
Most residents who spoke, however, wanted to know the answer to one basic question: "Where are we now," asked former Village Clerk Sandra Sokol. "Before we get carried away with our thoughts and ideas ...I think that's an important piece."
Some of those answers may become clearer on Oct. 21 when the board is expected to decide if Lake Street Investors, previously known as Sertus Capital Partners, should be granted a six-month extension to submit its financing plan for the construction of the building that was once proposed as a 20-story retail and residential project. The group, which has been granted multiple extensions in its seven years of discussions with the village, missed its most recent deadlines related to the redevelopment agreement with the village -- the date construction was supposed to start and when closing on the property was to occur.
Lake Street Investors also faces a $4.9 million foreclosure suit now being brought by the project's original lender. Wednesday Journal exclusively reported last month that Golub & Company, a Chicago-based international real estate development group has a significant interest in taking on project. That company happens to be the current employer of Michael Glazier, the former principle of Sertus/Lake Street Investors, who recently re-joined the firm.
James Prescott, a spokesman for Lake Street Investors told the Journal last month that discussions began within the past month between Golub and Sertus and also between Golub and PNC Bank to buy the past due note that would bring the mortgage out of foreclosure.
Trustee Adam Salzman jumped into the conversation by talking about the legal issues that come along with how the village should and can move forward. He suggested some of the terms of the redevelopment agreement weren't "necessarily breached, but are up for debate."
The first step the village must take before anything can move forward is determining if the redevelopment agreement request from the developers should be granted an extension.
Oak Park resident Lynn Kessen, who serves on the village's Community Development Citizens Advisory Committee and is a past candidate for the village board, said she'd like to see the board eliminate the ongoing challenges it has had with the developers.
"This is our opportunity to either scale back ...or if there is a breach of contract — if we have to stay with the developer — we should make them come back with a better plan," she said.
Salzman said because Lake Street Investors are asking for an extension after missing deadlines, it changes the dynamic of the conversation.
"In a sense they are asking for an extension retrospectively. That's going to create an interesting conversation," he said.
Audience members continued to question why the village has allowed the developers to drag out the agreement; one resident suggested the village wants the investment group to develop "something no matter what."
"He can't handle the first proposal...so you go onto another design?" an audience member posed to the elected officials. "It seems like the village staff is promoting the developer."
Abu-Taleb jumped in to respond to the seemingly irritated resident.
"I understand your concern. You're frustrated. I'm frustrated, too," Abu-Taleb said. He piggybacked on one resident who compared the Lake and Forest deal to a bad relationship. "We've been dating these folks for a long time."
Abu-Taleb shifted his comments to remind the group of the purpose of elected officials, which he reiterated is to bring the best goods and services to residents while balancing the tax burden. He said he'll continue to push the developers to reveal their financial capacity and prove if they're real players.
"Maybe this particular project is out of scale," Abu-Taleb said. He said the village must now determine if the developers can hit any promise on time, evaluate if the project can generate a real financial benefit to village's tax base, and see how it impacts residents.
"We want to find a balance between if this developer is real ...and if they have the money," Abu-Taleb said. "As far as I'm concerned, this is a new project. We as a board have to figure out if they are legit or not. …Today, they are not legit."
While a bulk of discussion focused on the Lake and Forest development, other business-related topics also surfaced. Economic development, business retention and recruitment and balancing business district growth with historic preservation commitment were other talking points of the evening.