The Oak Park Plan Commission approved plans to build a 51-unit apartment building on Madison Street last week, bringing to an end months of contentious meetings on the proposal.
Commissioners green-lighted the proposal in a 6-2 vote on March 3. While the volunteer advisory panel expressed reservations about the project, targeted at low-income people who live or work in Oak Park, they said those concerns weren't enough to vote no.
The area around 820 Madison will likely become increasingly upscale, said Commissioner Steve Rouse, and the need for affordable housing will increase.
"As the area gets more and more affluent, there's going to be less and less ability to build something like this, which means there's going to be more need for it, not less," Rouse said. "I think that's the reason this is the right project at the right time."
On the other side, commissioners Mark Benson and Gary Belenke voted against the project. They expressed concerns that the building is far too short on parking — the developer is providing 32 spaces, while zoning requires at least 73.
The developer believes many of the tenants will ride the bus or take the train. But Benson argued that poor people own cars and need them to get to work.
"I would rather us stand firm on the requirements and challenge them to come up with something better," he said.
Chicago-based Interfaith Housing Development Corp. is planning to purchase the empty Comcast building at 820 W. Madison, strip off the Dryvit façade, add two stories, and turn the structure into a four-story apartment building. They're partnering with the Oak Park Housing Authority and Catholic Charities to make the project a reality.
But Interfaith first needed relief from local zoning codes in order to remodel the building, which was once upon a time a Cadillac dealership. The current proposal is too tall, has too many apartments and doesn't provide enough parking spaces under village code.
The plan commission ended up granting Interfaith the eight zoning allowances it needed to make the project work. However, commissioners attached a list of 19 stipulations the developer must meet in exchange for the approval. Those include hiring a resident manager to live in the building, making each tenant go through a criminal background check, paying for a parking study after the project fills up, and giving top preference to people who both live and work in Oak Park.
Neighbors have voiced concerns about the project, saying it is too dense, lacking in diversity of incomes and does not fit in with the character of the surrounding neighborhood.
After the vote last week, opponents of the project said they were disappointed with the results. John Murtagh, of the 600 block of South Oak Park Avenue, said the added conditions "satisfied nothing" and "skirted" the parking problems.
"I still think it's a terrible project, but I'm not certain what can be done," he said.
Douglas McMeyer, of the 400 block of South Grove, said the commission seemed to recognize and address some of the negatives in the project but didn't tackle the shortage of parking and the murky tenant profile for the building.
"I'm hopeful this can be a positive thing. I don't know what the next steps will be," he said. "There are serious risks that were not addressed tonight that need to be considered as this thing moves forward."
The plan commission will reconvene March 17 to finalize their recommendation. But the Oak Park village board will have the final say on the proposal and will make its own decision on May 16.
It would require a supermajority vote from the village board — at least five out of seven — for trustees to overturn the plan commission's recommendation. The approval will be one of the first decisions of the new Oak Park village board after the April 5 election. None of the five candidates running for three spots would state how they'd vote on the project when given the opportunity on Monday.
If the village board agrees with the commission, Interfaith would then have nine months to apply for building permits, 18 months to start construction and 36 months to finish the building.
Perry Vietti, chief operating officer for Interfaith, said they had no problem with the conditions imposed by the commission. Their next step is to start filling out applications for funding and getting together detailed architectural drawings of the building.
"Zoning is huge. This is a big, big step forward," he said. "It's not the end of the road by any means, but I thought it was a pretty strong endorsement of the project by the vast majority of this group. It feels good."
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