I read with some amusement the many ideas offered up for the northeast corner of Oak Park Avenue and Madison Street in last week's VIEWPOINTS ("Brothel, roller coaster, prison or just Starbucks"). I noticed that retail/condos were somewhat reviled. It's somewhat understandable. Most of these developments have been yawners, with the exception of those that inspire vitriol. But there is a huge opportunity for Oak Park to do something: Zero. That is, a Zero Energy Housing development, or ZED.
ZED is not some delusion from the Jetsons, but a growing movement in Eurpoe,
Japan and the United States to design and construct buildings that generate as much energy for heat, cooling, lighting and appliances as they use. They can have no net utility costs; yes, no net utility costs.
Buildings, including some with commercial space, become power generators, safely, with no net pollution. Green buildings, solar collectors and wind turbines are no longer the leisure suit eyesores of the 1970s but designs that are exciting and add distinction and value to the buildings and surrounding community. A Zero Energy Development could have a station car system, where a range of vehicles can be reserved and shared by the building users, reducing the need and cost for parking spaces and traffic congestion. This reduction of car addiction can be achieved by the diverse proximity of nearby transit options. A ZED can include townhomes, lofts or any combination thereof. Some units can be affordable housing, fulfilling another mandate.
I will pause now to allow the naysayers to kvetch:
It will cost too much. If done correctly, a ZED can be brought in for 5-10 percent above business-as-usual construction. There are some incentives available to further reduce costs. Assistance from the village, such as a TIF?
Nobody uses the technology. There are over 100 buildings in the Chicago area that use solar electricity, dozens that use geothermal energy systems and hundreds that use solar heating. Building based wind systems are being installed around the Chicago metro area.
There's nobody local who can design or build these ZED's. There are dozens of architects and contractors who have been designing and building green in Chicago, some of them for over 10 years. Developers, though, that's a different story. That is the missing ingredient. Which leads to...
Nobody will buy or rent ZED's. Interesting how the traditional building and auto industries spend so much time and "energy" convincing themselves and the public that "nobody" wants "green stuff." Meanwhile, there are multi-month waiting lists for hybrid vehicles while gas guzzlers gather snow on car lots, and "greener" houses get snapped up in California and the Northeast U.S. faster than the higher energy bill ones down the road, when builders bother to put them up.
The Cubs will never win the World Series. Let's leave that for later.
A ZED would be the first of its kind in the Midwest, allowing Oak Park to add another architectural feather of distinction. It can be a new definition of luxury, while addressing pollution, energy security and economic development issues. This subject will no doubt require more 'splaining to do, but the time is right.
What would it take?
Some vision and the willingness to take advantage of an exciting opportunity.