Development. Two words come to mind: improvement and progress. Development is not just about growth and change. Improvement and progress encompass what development should accomplish. There is no question that the downtown area of Oak Park is in dire need of progressive and improvement. This necessarily spills over into the lives of the residents in the area, making it incumbent upon the village, the developer and Downtown Oak Park (DTOP) to collaborate with the residents and with the current retailers to find a mix of residential and commercial development that serves the needs of the village without compromising our quality of life in the village. Over the next several years we will have no fewer than four major developments concurrently being constructed in the downtown area of Oak Park (The Opera Club project, the Lake Street/Drechsler development, Whiteco and the Bank One lot).
My primary concern is the development of the Bank One lot. The Opera Club, Whiteco and Drechsler are already well underway. With a surfeit of condominiums and a flurry of rental properties converting to condos in Oak Park, why do we need a massive seven story luxury condominium/retail development in the Bank One lot on Marion? The current plan is to construct 84 units with a structure that will fill that lot from sidewalk to sidewalk. There will be no public parking provided, except for Bank One. The only access to parking for residents will be off of Marion Street. In the meantime, the Holley Court garage is being reconfigured so that the only entrance and exit will be off of Marion Street.
But I'm even more disturbed by the ever changing story the residents in the neighborhood are getting from both the village and the developer of the Bank One lot.
A little background is in order. First, Granite Realty planned to develop the property with a large, seven story condominium structure with two levels of underground parking. Granite sold its rights to develop the property to Oak Park Development Group, with John Schiess of Metropolis Architects & Builders serving the dual roles of architect and spokesperson. However, let's be very clear. The developer has a name. It is Alex Troyanovsky and he lives in Northbrook. He cares nothing for Oak Park. And to quote the Jan. 4 edition of WEDNESDAY JOURNAL, "he does not want notoriety, to be interviewed or to talk with neighbors..."
Mr. Schiess, to his credit, wanted to be a good neighbor and advised residents that his concept for the development of the Bank One lot was similar to that of Granite in that it would also be a seven story structure with underground parking, but his vision encompassed more green space, a smaller footprint with generous setbacks from the sidewalks and the back of the Sanctuary condominium on the east side of the property. Neighboring residents asked if the developer would consider something taller with even a smaller footprint that would allow for more green space and light. Mr. Schiess explained that in 2001 he approached the village with a plan to build a tall building directly to the south of the Sanctuary condominium building and town homes along Marion. He even presented those plans to residents at a meeting last month.
But according to Mr. Schiess, the village was agreeable but Bank One would not go along with it because they wanted to maintain surface parking for their customers.
Next, word came down that soil studies showed a small stream was flowing about seven feet below street level at the Bank One lot location. A stream I should mention that has been known about for decades. No studies have been done of potential toxic properties in that stream. And although there will now only be one level of underground parking, extending nine feet or so below street level, no independent structural expert has been brought in by the developer or the village to determine what effect this water might have on construction and how the overall construction will affect the foundations of existing buildings in the neighborhood. Mr. Schiess assured residents that his structural engineer would take every precaution. That is not too reassuring given the turn of events at the Opera Club-?#34;also an Oak Park Development Group project overseen by Mr. Schiess. The neighboring Oak Park Housing Authority Building is now on jacks apparently due to structural problems caused by the construction.
The latest communication from Mr. Schiess is that due to this water issue and the demands made by Bank One, he had to change the scope of the project and he now plans to return to the original Granite design with very minor modifications. It should be noted that Mr. Schiess has served as an architect for Granite in the past, although he is quick to say that there is nothing coincidental about this recent turn of events. Mr. Schiess and the developer he currently represents have a reputation for working with the neighborhoods in which they are building to foster a relationship based on communication and trust. We in the Harlem/Ontario neighborhood ask for no less as we watch our historic, vintage buildings knocked down to make way for new construction.
Although this parcel was not village owned property, the village still has a voice. And that voice should be representative of the needs of the entire neighboring community most impacted by this development. That voice should be putting pressure on the developer with regard to set backs, with regard to safety, with regard to parking issues, including public access to parking, and with regard to density. That voice should be putting pressure on the developer with regard to preserving our historic properties and neighborhoods.
I cannot say this with enough emphasis: My neighbors and I are not opposed to development as some would have you believe. We are not opposed to new retail, if it serves a need in the area. What we are opposed to is misinformation and a lack of inclusion in determining what is best for our neighborhood and what is safest for our neighborhood. We need open and honest communication. That would be improvement. That would be progress. That would be a development.