Why the Albion proposal is inadequate

Opinion: Columns

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By Tom Bassett-Dilley

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As a design professional, the architect of the Austin Gardens Environmental Education Center, and a 16-year resident of Oak Park, I am writing to voice my opposition to the proposed Albion project at Forest and Lake. 

It is shocking that the project is before the Plan Commission because that suggests the developer was encouraged by the OPEDC to pursue a project that flies in the face of many principles embraced by the community, as manifested in the 2014 Envision Oak Park Plan and the 2005 Downtown Master Plan.

How do you design a downtown? Do you hire an expert design firm to assess your village, spend hundreds of hours in community stakeholder meetings, and draw on their experience to establish design guidelines for development? That's what Oak Park did for downtown in 2005 (Downtown Master Plan) and reinforced in a more general way in 2014 (Envision Oak Park). Or, once that's in place, do you sit down with developers and throw master plans out the window to fit their pro forma? 

That's apparently what is happening now.

The corner of Lake and Forest, 1000 Lake, is a crucial site: It is the face of our downtown when approaching from the north and east. It should create a gateway to the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio neighborhood, an international cultural destination that attracts tens of thousands of visitors annually. It should strengthen the streetscape along Lake, which, along with the Hemingway District (Oak Park Avenue), is the core of our pedestrian-friendly, transit-linked, small-town identity. 

The site provides the opportunity to support Austin Gardens Park, a vital piece of nature in downtown's "backyard." The site is calling out for public open space, which is otherwise non-existent on Lake Street. And it is crying out for an excellent work of architecture that looks to the future while reinforcing the scale and texture of our unique downtown. 

These are the qualities that our master plans protect in their recommendations.

Instead, we're being asked to accept a building more than 100 feet over the Master Plan's recommendation, with three stories of parking structure on Lake Street and Forest Avenue. Between this behemoth and Vantage, we get a dark, windy tunnel along Forest (with parking and loading on both sides) instead of a gateway. Instead of public open space, we get lot-line to lot-line development, except for another dark alley on the west, put there to support the planned restaurant, not our urban life. And we get a building that replicates a River North development, devoid of relationship to our downtown. 

Finally, Austin Gardens suffers: my shade study (presented at the Aug. 3 Plan Commission meeting) demonstrates that Albion's shadow would significantly reduce the solar output of the Environmental Education Center's photovoltaic array, and it virtually destroys the ecology of the southeast corner of the park, where the learning garden, vegetable beds, and bioswale are sited.

The idea of Planned Development in the zoning code is to allow developers to exceed certain regulations so they can provide something of greater benefit to the village. A Planned Development must support the Master Plan, and cannot damage adjacent properties. Given the many ways this project violates the objectives of the Master Plan, its damage to Austin Gardens, and its lack of compensating benefits, I cannot understand how it has gotten this far.

Development on this site is not an all-or-nothing situation, but neither is it possible to make minor changes to the Albion proposal and create a successful project for our village. This site in Oak Park deserves sensitive, inspiring development, not another maxed-out heyday. 

Of all sites in Oak Park, it should heed community vision as memorialized in our master plans. Yes, our master plans will change, but they must do so with expert guidance and public process.

We cannot let the character of our village be sold behind closed doors.

Tom Bassett-Dilley, AIA, CPHC(c), designed the Austin Gardens Environmental Education Center for the Park District of Oak Park and prepared a shade study as well as an urban critique (with graphics) of Albion's proposed project. His website is www.drawingonplace.com.

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Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: August 23rd, 2017 9:27 AM

If we are locked into ancient so called master plans, the entire DTOP would still be a failing Mall like it was 30 some years ago. A dead zone. Outdated zoning should be changed as needed and the process of doing that is moving along just fine. Also, the concept that someone is only a stakeholder if they live right next to the park is pretty elitist, the downtown is used by everyone in town. I live near this project and am very much in favor of it, because it is progress to have this building there on that spot.

Ada Johnson Tikkanen  

Posted: August 22nd, 2017 10:25 PM

The really sad part (to me)... went to the planning commission meeting tonight. You could tell who had made up their minds by their body language alone and that dull stare into the abyss that so many politicians have acquired over countless open forums that mean absolutely nothing - b/c - well - they've already made deals in back rooms. And I was curious as to why the woman now in charge pf parking seemed to have a full understanding of how many apartments were going to be built in downtown OP so far ahead of time. Either she's a fortune teller or a lot of people have wasted their energy trying to save the character of the village. But want to send a shout out to Greg, Doug and other members of the commission who expressed concern. Ditto Jan and Chris from the Park District.

Tony Dobrowolski from Oak Park  

Posted: August 22nd, 2017 11:25 AM

If this development is permitted, then the zoning regulations have NO MEANING. The "variances" that Albion is seeking are not variances in the traditional sense. They are a surrender of the zoning regulations. There must be a better way to develop this site!!!

Adrian Ayres Fisher  

Posted: August 17th, 2017 5:46 PM

Well done and absolutely to the point. Hear, hear!

Ada Johnson Tikkanen  

Posted: August 17th, 2017 1:12 PM

I'm seconding that thank you. Brilliantly said.

Christine Vernon  

Posted: August 17th, 2017 12:31 PM

Excellent summary. I attended those meetings with many other "stakeholders" because I lived, and still live, in the neighborhood adjoining Downtown Oak Park. The word "stakeholders" and that hearing process lose all meaning given the ensuing decision by non-stakeholders and non-participants in those hearings to put an 18 story building on the site where a plaza was decided during the Crandall Arambula hearings to be the best option for the Lytton's site and was included as a goal of the Crandall Arambula Revision of the Comprehensive Plan of 2008 to be the best interest of DTOP, the FLW Historic District and the Park. Now we have a Board that is seems to be ramming a construction project of objectionable location and height at residents. As I stated in another post regarding Albion, this is the modus operandi of the VMA of old who gave us the objectionable Stankus project and misled poor Mr. Stankus forcing him to bankruptcy or near bankruptcy with their clandestine plans in the '70s. It is continuing the prevailing atttitude of the VMA regime of old, that despite the fact that residents demonstrate that they do not want a particular project, change, or deviation form a comprehensive plan they came out for weeks of meetings to help formulate, the Village Board and Plan Commission who did not participate in those hearings know what is best for Oak Park, overriding what has gone before them in planning by citizens. It makes no sense in a democracy....unless, of course, there is some other dynamic involved which citizens do not see.

Dea Fort from Oak Park  

Posted: August 17th, 2017 12:02 PM

I agree and hope the planning commission and the village trustees read this.

Judith Warren  

Posted: August 16th, 2017 8:43 PM

Thank you.

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