Plan Commission closes in on Whiteco decision

? Commission deliberations kick off with mostly positive comments, concerns over parking and traffic. A vote may be taken tomorrow night.

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Fierce community opposition, lengthy public hearings and a looming local election may be hallmarks of Whiteco's first and second trips before the Plan Commission.

But based on early?#34;and mostly favorable?#34;comments from commissioners Thursday, the project's second incarnation appears to have a greater chance of surviving at the table where its predecessor failed two years ago.

The commission began its deliberations on the 14-story apartment and retail complex last week, and may take a final vote on the project as soon as tomorrow night.

Commissioners did voice concerns over parking, traffic and landscaping, as well as how to approach a debate on the development's economics.

The village's subsidy of the project has been a flashpoint throughout hearings. As part of its contract with Whiteco, the village is slated to write down the cost of the Harlem/Ontario parcel, and grant the developer a $4 million Tax Increment Financing (TIF) cash subsidy.

Rarely, however, is the Plan Commission privy to negotiations between land owner and developer, muddling the debate over a project proposed jointly by a developer and village government.

Commission attorney Richard Martens said the Planned Unit Development (PUD) ordinance, drafted in 1990, never contemplated such a situation. Generally, discussion is centered on a development's future financial impacts on Oak Park, not on past negotiations, he said. 

"You can look at the entire transaction. There is room here for interpretation," he said. "But [the PUD] is not intended to go back and revisit the contract between the owner and the developer."

Though commissioners acknowledged the village's role in the development proposal complicated the discussion, most spoke favorably of the financial implications of the project.

"This is a very difficult issue for me. Looking at the economics does have merit when the village is a co-applicant," said Commissioner Doug Low. "But I can't sit here and tell you that it's a bad financial deal."

On the general design of the project, however, the project received mostly favorable comments.

"This tried to address every single of the issues we try to think of. So far as massing goes, this is an excellent example of distributing elements of the building in a reasonably intelligent way," said Commissioner Charles Bassett, who is also an architect.

"The overall conception of the design is significantly improved over the last one," Commission Chairperson Colette Lueck said. "The design of the project overall really did attempt to limit impact as much as it could."

Commission members also showed support for village staff's argument that adding housing in close proximity to downtown would be a community benefit.

"Adding 200 units will help vitality to downtown," Commissioner Penny Wallingord said.

Parking and traffic, however, remained top concerns, which will be revisited by the commission before a decision is made. Following construction, consultants have estimated there's a possibility that at peak hours as many as two cars a minute may be exiting the garage at one time?#34;which some said may be too many cars in too short a time.

"The parking garage doesn't show the attention to detail that the rest of the project does," Lueck said.

The next Plan Commission hearing is set for 7 p.m. tomorrow night at village hall. The village board must grant final approval of the project before construction can begin.

A "super majority" of the board, or a 5-2 vote, is required to turn down a commission recommendation. Trustees Robert Milstein and Galen Gockel previously voted against the redevelopment agreement between Whiteco and the village. Trustee David Pope said he will vote in accordance with the Plan Commission's recommendation.


New details of the Whiteco project that have emerged over Plan Commission hearings include:

? Whiteco has agreed not to file for a tax appeal for an estimated 10 years. More details on this commitment were not available before press time.

? The developer has agreed to wave its "exclusive" rights to 200 parking spaces in the Holley Court garage. Previously, 200 spaces in the garage would have been marked as reserved for Whiteco tenants. Residents can still park in the garage after purchasing a permit, but no spaces will be specifically reserved for them.

? The company will contribute $30,000 toward purchase of public art for the northwest corner of Harlem and Ontario.

?Apartments will be leased through the Oak Park Regional Housing Center.

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