By Anna Lothson
The Whiteco building on Harlem Avenue, built after a drawn-out controversy about design, density and underlying village development and funding mechanisms, is on the market.
Known officially as Oak Park Place Apartments, the 14-story, 204-unit luxury apartment building, is officially for sale, according to Moran & Company, an apartment investing firm which has the property listed on its website: http://www.moranandco.com/listings/property.asp?id=881.
Village President David Pope said the sale could indicate that the rental market is strengthening across not just Oak Park, but the rest of the country.
"I imagine from Whiteco's perspective this is an opportune time," Pope said. "From the village's perspective, what really matters the most to us is that any transaction complies with the redevelopment agreement."
One aspect of that agreement, Pope said, was having the building remain a rental property for 10 years following the building's opening in order to increase the number of accessible rental units in Oak Park.
Greg Marsey, a former village trustee, however, said he thought the news didn't align with the company's initial statements on its commitment to Oak Park.
"It's a little bit surprising because when Whiteco came to town, they made a big point that they wanted to be part of the community. They wanted to bring the project," said Marsey, who served from 2005-2009. "I'm assuming the project has not performed as expected."
If true, he said, it wouldn't surprise him. The high rent prices in comparison with other units in the village, he suggested, would be the "biggest impediment to their success."
Marsey said the village's fundamental concerns moving forward are that all the contractual obligations agreed upon in the initial redevelopment agreement must be transferred to the new owners. That's one way village officials can ensure the tax revenue expected from the project will be upheld.
As long as the transaction follows those stipulations, he thinks new ownership shouldn't have any major impact on the village.
Pope said Whiteco as a company has been an active part in the community since opening and has been supportive of groups like the Downtown Oak Park business association. Because of that, he suspects the sale is purely a business decision.
A representative from Whiteco did not return calls seeking comment on the sale.
One aspect of the Whiteco property that garnered attention during its development was the adjacent parking structure. Although Marsey couldn't recall all the details of what the village and Whiteco agreed upon, he said parking was another part of the contract that needed to be analyzed.
Simone Boutet, Oak Park's acting village attorney, said she wasn't the attorney when the deal was finalized but that she will be reviewing documents to see what agreements were made. At this point, she said it's too early to say how or if the new owners would have to abide by the same conditions.
There have also been construction-related issues in the parking facility, which was a major expansion of the existing Holley Court garage. The village government currently has an agreement for Whiteco to make the repairs to the garage.
The project was controversial from the start, owing to its size and density. It went through a multi-year approval process and several notable redesigns before it was finally approved. The project was completed in 2008 and its apartment units have been basically well received. The Trader Joe's on the ground level has been successful, but two additional small retail spaces have gone unfilled. A proposal to allow a Weight Watchers facility to fill one of the spaces is currently before the village's zoning board.
Because the first-floor space below the apartments is zoned for retail stores, non-retail options seeking to move into the space have had a difficult time getting village approval.
The apartments, which opened in 2009, include a combination of studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom options. There are also four townhome units on the north edge of the property, along Ontario Street.
The building has gotten much attention since it was first proposed, owing to its sheer size, the village's role in assembling the parcel and giving up surface parking. Design issues were also much debated and the massing of the building was shifted multiple times before it was finally OK'd.
Besides its size, the aesthetics have been questioned and much debated, including past comments by village trustees and local architects who suggested its largely concrete façade didn't fit into Oak Park's typical brick image. When the structure was completed, the reactions were mixed. Some criticized its shape and color scheme; others suggested it was a good use of density and unique architectural design styles.