After four years, Whiteco project gets the go-ahead

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Whiteco's years-long sojourn through Plan Commission hearings, village board meetings and hours upon hours of public testimony finally came to end Monday in a 5-2 vote.

Though the controversial 14-story mixed-use development has drawn crowds of supporters and detractors over the last two years, its fate was sealed before mostly empty seats and after only a handful of residents testified.

Only Trustees Galen Gockel and Robert Milstein voted against the high-end apartment and retail complex, slated for Harlem Avenue and Ontario Street.

Both board members said they felt the village's subsidy of the project?#34;which village staff maintains is roughly $8.25 million, and critics have placed well above $10 million?#34;is too high.

"I congratulate [Whiteco President] Mr. Connelly on his ability to extract public funds from this board," Gockel said. "This is a low-risk, high-return project. TIF funds that we intercept from schools should be spent carefully."

"This project is over-subsidized; it's a bad business deal," Milstein said. "This is too much money for this group. There are business districts other than downtown."

Remaining board members argued strongly for the project, saying adding more rental housing stock to Oak Park is critical, the development's design has improved dramatically since it was first proposed and the level of subsidy being granted is not unreasonable.

"Many, many people spent countless hours on this project, and it is many times better," said Trustee Diana Carpenter. "It is extremely important to our diversity to continue to hold onto multifamily housing."

"Unfortunately, we've been left with the sound byte that we're giving away money to a developer," said Trustee Ray Johnson. "This is a product we wouldn't have had without [negotiating a development agreement, rather than issuing an RFP]."

Trustee David Pope said he believed the process leading up to Whiteco's approval was "imperfect," but that the project will make downtown a "more vibrant business district."

"Are we getting the best deal? I'm not sure we can know that. It isn't the windfall some want it to be, and it isn't the black hole some want it to be," he said.

Village President Joanne Trapani said to stay competitive with neighboring communities, it is sometimes necessary for the village to provide developers with subsidies.

"Subsidy is not a bad word. If we take that away from the Village of Oak Park, all those other communities will have a head's up on us. It's important for us to be on a level playing field," she said.

The project features 200 apartment units, 14,000-square-feet of retail space and six townhomes. A Trader Joe's specialty food store is also expected to be included in the retail portion of the project.


A proposal to limit Whiteco's ability to file for property tax appeals has had village staff huddling with consultants and seeking a
flurry of legal opinions over the last several weeks.

After the Plan Commission officially recommended a tax appeal limit, village staff consulted with both its Tax Increment Financing (TIF) attorney, bond counsel, and its financial consultant, who all concluded that the idea should be nixed.

If the appeal limit is approved, staff said Monday night that the village would not be able to issue "non-taxable" bonds to fund the $7.2 million cost of expanding the Holley Court garage. Interest rates on "taxable" bonds, which the village would be forced to issue instead, could be as much as a point-and-a-half higher, Village Attorney Ray Heise said.

The IRS can already argue that the village's plans to expand the garage will substantially benefit private interest, as Whiteco residents will have the option to purchase up to 200 permits for the garage, Heise said.

If the village also approved a tax appeal limit, the village would "stand no chance," of gaining tax-exempt status, Heise added.

Instead of the limit, the village will instead now require that Whiteco give taxing bodies five days' notice before filing for an appeal, which Heise argued will "better protect the tax base."
?#34;Katharine Grayson

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