An affordable housing development that's been in the works for years was expected to get approved or rejected by the Oak Park village board on Monday. But trustees held off on making their decision, as they'll devote all of next week's meeting to debating the pros and cons.
A Chicago developer is hoping to buy the long vacant building at 820 Madison St., just west of Oak Park Avenue. There, Interfaith Housing Development Corp. plans to strip off the building's Dryvit façade, gut the inside and add two extra floors. The changes would turn the former Comcast facility into a 51-unit apartment building for low-income singles.
But first Interfaith needs the go-ahead from village trustees, after the Oak Park Plan Commission already gave its blessing in March (the proposal requires eight variances from village zoning laws).
Loath to hold a meeting that stretched all the way till 5 a.m., said Village President David Pope, the board held off on having a discussion until next week. Trustees spent a couple of hours hearing a presentation from the developer, along with comments from neighbors for and against the project. Then the board members made a lengthy list of questions they want answered by staff and the developer in the coming days.
Doug McMeyer, of the 400 block of South Grove, urged trustees to approve a "floorboard" saying that at least 80 percent of residents would live or work in Oak Park. Interfaith has said the majority of tenants would fit into those categories, but has declined to be nailed down to a certain percentage.
McMeyer also asked the board to consider installing a cul-de-sac on Grove north of Madison to add more parking and decrease traffic on the residential block. Patricia O'Shea told the board she believes the development would create racial segregation because it would only be open to people who earn $26,300 or less.
"Communities around the country are working to get away from this type of model," she said.
On the other side, supporters argued that the development would lead to economic integration, as the median income in the area is about $86,000.
"The Comcast building will make the neighborhood around it integrated, not segregated," said Jane Beckett, a 25-year Oak Park resident.
Trustees mostly posed questions to the developers, which they asked Interfaith to respond to in writing before next week's meeting. But the village board did give some glimpses into their persuasions.
Pope, along with Trustee Colette Lueck, said the "core issue" in front of them is whether the apartment building will, in fact, create segregation in the south Oak Park neighborhood. And if it doesn't, then how do you define concentrated poverty, Pope asked.
"Where the plan commission landed on this issue is that this is not segregating, it is supporting people within a greater context that supports their overall well-being," Lueck said. "We may land there or we may not, but that's clearly where the plan commission landed."
Trustee Ray Johnson pointed to a letter from the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, arguing the same thing as Beckett — that the building's tenants earn much less than the median income of the neighborhood. He believes the housing center did "the best job" of "responsibly" answering the question.
Lueck questioned why the development would only target people who live or work in Oak Park, and she bristled at opponents who have compared the project to Chicago Housing Authority high-rises.
"I really found the discussions on tenant profile extremely disturbing and extremely problematic," she said.
"The way some have characterized this proposal, I think, has isolated people who live here in some ways. They've built up their own wall in regards to how they have viewed this project," he said. "I don't think we should ever lose sight that there has been powerful testimony on the pro side, and very respectful comments from many of those opposed to the project as well. There's just a small percentage of people who have talked about this project in such a negative way that they've created their own stereotype."
Trustee Adam Salzman expressed worries that the commercial space on the ground floor may stay vacant for a long time.
"I would really hate to see a vacancy of that size on Madison Street," he said.