Months of contentious hearings came to an end on Monday, as the Oak Park village board voted 6-1 to approve an affordable housing complex proposed on Madison Street.
Trustees spent more than four hours chewing over a Chicago nonprofit's proposal to convert an old auto dealership, later a cable TV headquarters, into a four-story, 51-unit apartment building. The final vote came just before midnight. Some elected officials expressed worries about the lack of parking and the possibility the first floor storefront will remain vacant for years.
But in the end, those concerns weren't enough to dissuade trustees who OKd the project eagerly. Trustee Colette Lueck has spent more than a decade serving the village, first on the plan commission and now on the village board. During that time she's had to weigh in on a plethora of controversial projects, but she said last night was a cinch.
"This is the easiest vote I've ever had," she said, later adding, "I think this is a once-in-probably-most-of-our-lifetimes opportunity."
Interfaith Housing Development Corp. plans to buy the long-vacant building at 820 Madison, just west of Oak Park Avenue. They're going 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 needed the go-ahead from village trustees, after the Oak Park Plan Commission gave its blessing in March (the proposal requires eight variances from village zoning laws).
Some neighbors have voiced concerns about the project, saying it's too dense, has too little parking and should contain a mix of residents with different incomes. On the other side, developers say the tenants (who would earn $26,300 or less) will take public transportation, and the development will lead to economic integration of the neighborhood, as the median income nearby is about $86,000.
Trustees last week said the segregation debate was one of the key concerns in reaching a decision. Ray Johnson pointed to a letter from the head of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center during the plan commission hearings, which highlighted the area's median income.
Johnson thought that letter was persuasive enough to ignore any segregation concerns. He and other trustees scolded opponents of the project who compared it to Chicago Housing Authority-style buildings such as Cabrini-Green.
"There is nothing about this proposal that even remotely conforms to the legal definition of segregation," said Trustee Adam Salzman. "The Regional Housing Center data makes that perfectly clear."
Trustee Bob Tucker, who works in affordable housing, said the project is neither horrible, nor great. He expressed concerns about the lack of parking and how it might affect the storefront on the first floor, but said the positives ultimately outweigh the negatives. It will transform a "painfully ugly" building into something "quite striking," while also serving a "need for accessible, affordable housing."
"Everybody becomes very entrenched that this is either a horrible development or this is the greatest development ever. It is neither," he said, later adding, "from start to finish, this is a very good development.
Trustee John Hedges was the lone no vote. He thinks Oak Park should have first had a larger conversation about how it wants to address affordable housing.
After the vote, opponents of the project expressed disappointment, while saying that they expected the outcome. Patricia O'Shea, of the 600 block of South Oak Park Avenue, wishes the board added more safeguards for the neighborhood.
"I would have liked to have seen the board put in more protections for our community. It's a 40-year commitment," she said, referring to how long the development has to remain as is because of the funding sources. "So overall, I'm disappointed, but I do appreciate all the effort that went into it."
The approval came with some 21 conditions, including hiring a resident manager for the building and paying for a parking study after the building fills up. Douglas McMeyer, of the 400 block of South Grove, pushed for the board to approve a cul-de-sac on his block, but the board held off on the idea. He wishes the hearings resulted in different development.
"I don't think the ball moved much in terms of what the proposal was," he said.
The village board is expected to reconvene June 6 to approval a final ordinance allowing the project. Interfaith will then have nine months from that date to apply for building permits. If all goes as planned, the developer hopes to have the building built and occupied in two years.
"It's a big decision, but for us, this is step number 10 in a 100-step process," said Gladys Jordan, president of Interfaith.
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