I was happy to hear that an ad hoc group had formed to investigate how Oak Park can save the 124 SRO (single-resident occupancy) rooms at the YMCA when the YMCA moves to Forest Park. As a neighbor of the YMCA, we know many of the men currently living there and would like to see them stay in the community. However, I am dismayed beyond belief to find that this ad hoc group is centering their efforts on building an SRO-type housing development in the YMCA-owned alley parking lot one block away from their location on Marion. (This group wants to build market rate housing on the more desirable Marion Street site where the YMCA is currently located.) This second YMCA property, the South Court lot, is centered over 200 feet inside the alleys of Washington, Randolph, Wisconsin, and Home. In addition, to help fund this project, there is talk of building a parking garage on the first floors of the proposed building.
A parking garage deep in an alley that already has crime and is hard for the police to observe would be a disaster for this neighborhood!
In addition, the organization that has stepped forward with a proposal to build this project has a focus on providing housing and social services to men with drug, alcohol, and mental issues. Many of the men currently living in the Oak Park YMCA do so because of financial issues and are going through a bankruptcy, a divorce, just moved to the area, or are students and seniors who need inexpensive housing with no utility bills. These men would not qualify for the housing that is being proposed to replace the current SRO.
It concerns me that this ad hoc group has met quietly for one year and has not reached out to our neighborhood to get our input into such drastic plans for our neighborhood. More importantly, after so many discussions in this village about participatory planning and community involvement in development, why did the village board just approve $5,000 to help fund a study of the YMCA’s properties and how to keep/move the SRO without asking this ad hoc group to first talk with the neighborhood? Once again the cart is before the horse (will you ever learn?) and a group will have spent one year and $15,000 (full price of the study) only to find out that the neighborhood is completely against moving an SRO-type transitional housing deep into a residential alley that cannot be monitored by natural surveillance and the police department.
And what happens to all the money (Oak Park Community Block Grant Funds and federal HUD funds) that was recently put into renovating the current YMCA SRO? We will tear all that down and spend more federal funds to relocate this project into an alley?
This neighborhood has a large population of affordable housing units. Within one block of the YMCA is Mills Tower, a 19-story 198-unit building for low-income seniors, and Bon Villa, located right on the perimeter of this South Court lot, is under new management that intends to renovate and keep the 93 affordable single-room units. And, of course, the YMCA SRO has 124 units at Marion and Randolph. All of this is within two blocks of each other. The YMCA SRO should stay at the corner of Randolph and Marion where the men will be part of the community rather than shoved back in an alley where problems are absolutely sure to evolve.
We understand that the YMCA needs to be responsible to its members and maximize the amount of money it can raise from the sale of their three properties. But if keeping the YMCA SRO at the current location is not possible, then alternatives such as purchasing and renovating smaller apartment buildings throughout Oak Park should be looked at. In addition, if the village wants to keep these SRO units, it should look at building a social service/SRO combined building at the corner of Oak Park and Madison. The village has talked about combining agencies into one place and putting their former properties back on the tax rolls. Why not look into how to combine these two initiatives? After all, we the taxpayers paid for the eminent domain of the gas station at this corner, and now it sits mostly empty.
Let’s start using common sense!