By Anna Lothson
The long-delayed, controversial four-story Oak Park office building slated for Madison Street is still a viable project its architect says, but surrounding residents didn't agree.
Nevin Hedlund, the project's architect spoke on behalf of the Madison Highland Development team at Monday's village board meeting, and requested that the board reinstate the previously approved planned unit development. The group needed another approval because the project missed its latest May 16 deadline for an extension.
Despite the neighbors' concerns — which focused on the fact that this is the 8th extension for the group — board members concluded they had no choice but to grant an extension. Trustees expressed concern about the project's future, but because the developers purchased the land from the village years ago, they concluded not approving the measure would only add another delay.
Before board members got their say, two residents spoke up, including John Murphy, who lives on Highland just south of where the project is planned to be built.
"Saying it doesn't make it so," Murphy said, referring to the development team's letter promising the project remains feasible.
He cited the history of the project, which was approved by the board in 2009 following a negative recommendation from the plan commission. He also was frustrated with the continuous delays the board approves.
"The board sets deadlines for a reason," Murphy said. "It's not open ended. It should never be open ended. …It's not good for the property. It's not good for the community." They are essentially asking for an open ended commitment from the board. …That's unacceptable in my view."
The resident concluded by encouraging the board to reject the reinstatement ordinance that would give the group until April 2014 to go ahead with its plans. Murphy said he didn't believe the group can deliver on its promises and the board shouldn't either.
Another neighbor, David Kralik, said he understood the recession was tough on developers during the time the project was being proposed, but he and his neighbors feel substantial progress needs to be made before the board supports the project going ahead.
"The time has come for them to move forward with this project," Kralik said. A handful of buildings in the area have been taken down to prep space for development, but progress stopped there, the resident said. Everyone wants successful commercial development on Madison, he concluded, but this project has created a "cavern at the end of the block."
"We welcome development," he said. "But time is time. There has got to be a time to say no."
Trustees followed the residents' comments with a handful of questions about what would happen if the board didn't grant the necessary reinstatement of the previously approved plan.
Trustee Glenn Brewer spoke up first, saying that because the Madison Highland group purchased the land, along with the air rights over Highland, the development could happen regardless of what the board decided.
The architect stressed that not reinstating the proper plans would be a significant step backward. He also emphasized to trustees that no office building has been built in Oak Park since 1968, and that the development group is willing and attempting to invest in the village.
"We have been trying to make this work. We are trying to be partners with village entity. We are making a good faith effort," Hedlund said. "And we continue to try and make it a go."
The group hasn't finalized any tenants, but there are talks underway with two potential office tenants. The mixed-use project calls for parking, office space, and ground-floor retail. Although tenants aren't secured, Hedlund said once one piece starts moving, others will follow.
"It's not for lack of effort that we haven't built something as of this date," he said. Hedlund focused his comments on the group's ability to move ahead, but he also told trustees he couldn't guarantee the development would break ground in six months.
A schedule provided by the development team in a letter dated June 12 shows it hoped to have leases signed by fall and have building permits submitted by the year's end. This has construction starting in March 2014, with an estimated completion in Feb. 2015.
Trustee Peter Barber echoed Brewer's comments about what would happen if the board didn't approve the motion. He agreed not moving forward would complicate the situation and slow the process the developers would have the right to go through anyway since they own the land. Based on the comments, trustees wanted more assurance the development will happen, but concluded moving forward was best for all parties.
"There is a good possibility that you will be back in [April] for another extension," Trustee Colette Lueck said. "But that is not our loss. That's your money. You are the one with the skin in the game here. I think for us, if we were going to turn this down, you go back to square one. ….I don't see where the village stake is here."
She, like her colleagues, referenced that the developers own the land and air rights, so the controversial bridge aspect of the development spanning over Highland that upset neighbors is out of the village's hands.
Following discussion, the board unanimously approved the reinstatement ordinance that allows the developer to attempt to achieve the projected development schedule as presented. Immediately after the vote a handful of disappointed residents quietly voiced discontent as they walked out of the board room.