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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