After more than three years of negotiations, Forest Park has sold nearly eight acres of village-owned land with the promise that a multi-million dollar YMCA facility is close behind.

The $4.3 million deal with the West Cook YMCA was sealed last week by Forest Park’s village council. It should serve as the starting gun for a massive fundraising and construction effort on the part of the non-profit.

“It took a long time, but we’re delighted that Forest Park, Oak Park and River Forest are going to have a state of the art facility,” said YMCA President Scott Gaalaas. “This is a big step.”

The sale should intensify discussions about the future of three YMCA owned parcels in Oak Park. The Y has sent between 12 and 15 requests for qualifications to developers interested in the sites. It expects responses within 30 to 40 days, Gaalaas said.

The requests suggest affordable housing as a use, but it’s not required. The Y needs the $5 to $6 million its Oak Park site is appraised for in order to acquire the 7.7 acres of Forest Park land at 7824 Madison St.

The 128 Single Room Occupancy units at the 225 S. Marion St. building are functionally obsolete, according to a feasibility study earlier this year, and condominium conversion would be highly unlikely because of the building’s awkward structure with a swimming pool and basketball courts.

Those purchasing the Oak Park land can’t use it until the Y’s new facility is complete and ready for the organization to move in, Gaalaas said.

The new facility will cost between $20 and $22 million for the land, construction, architecture and legal services. The new 65,000-square foot facility will feature two indoor swimming pools, an indoor track and indoor basketball and volleyball courts. Outdoor soccer, baseball and softball fields are also planned.

The Y doesn’t have to close on the land for 12 months, and a capital fundraising campaign is beginning immediately. No candy bars will be sold, but the Y will go to individual leaders in surrounding communities that believe strongly in the organization’s mission and how it can improve quality of life, Gaalaas said.

Donors will be offered naming rights to certain parts of the building. Fundraising should take 12 to 18 months. The earliest possible date for groundbreaking will be in 2009. Construction should take 12 to 15 months after that.

Gaalaas is happy the new location is only seven or eight minutes from the previous spot, and will give clients from River Forest and Oak Park a chance to keep coming back. The new facility will have five times as much parking, increasing from 44 to 225 spaces.

When the time comes, the Y will give its 100 or so SRO residents a six month notice of when it will be moving and expects to help them relocate. Transitional housing has been phased out of the YMCA’s mission across the country. New single room occupancy units haven’t been built at a Y in over 30 years with the non-profit focusing more on health, welfare and education, not the hotel business, Gaalaas said.

Out of 2,600 Ys in the country, only five percent still have “hotels” where rent is charged by the week.

The local organization’s board of directors is ecstatic about the move, and Gaalaas believes it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity for the Y to acquire seven acres of land in an urban neighborhood. It spent three years trying to find a piece of land that was large enough, and he feels Forest Park, along with River Forest and Oak Park will benefit immensely.

“It will never happen again because everything is built up in an urban environment like this,” he said. “It’s a rare, rare opportunity, and it will be a wonderful institution for all three communities.”

CONTACT: mstempniak@wjinc.com  

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