First reported 1/14/2010 11:15 p.m.

A controversial Oak Park hotel project took a big step forward last week. The Oak Park Plan Commission gave a Chicago developer the go-ahead to build a 20-story building that under the village’s zoning is too tall and short of parking.

The commission’s vote is not binding, as the village board will have the final say when it decides whether to give the group a thumbs up in March.

The plan commission voted 6-3 last Thursday to allow Chicago-based Sertus Capital Partners to build the mixed use – hotel, condominium, retail — complex at the northeast corner of Forest and Lake.

Commissioners expressed some doubts about the project and attached some conditions to the approval. But the qualms weren’t powerful enough, as the majority of the nine-member panel voted to grant the five “zoning allowances” Sertus was seeking for setbacks, parking, density, height and lot coverage.

The commission did take 40 parking spots away from the condo portion of the project, making the development 33 spots short of providing enough required public parking, instead of 73.

“We have a strong public transportation system, and what are we doing by encouraging people to drive and using more vehicles?” said plan commission Chairwoman Linda Bolte, who voted for the variances.

Commissioner Michael Quinn, who also voted in favor, said a Jan. 7 letter from Village President David Pope was “persuasive.” In it, Pope explained the village board’s rationale for approving a redevelopment agreement with Sertus to team up and replace the aging public garage at the corner of Lake and Forest.

“This is a bargain-basement replacement of an aging structure,” said Commissioner Steve Rouse, who also pointed to Pope’s letter. “And to say that it should be a large, big building, we saw in the renderings what that would look like – a big monolith fronting Lake Street, which no one wants.”

In addition to Quinn, Bolte and Rouse, commissioners Deborah Fausch, Gail Moran and Steve Ruszcyk also voted in favor of the project.

The Village of Oak Park has been looking to partner with Sertus for several years to replace its garage on the corner and build a new hotel. The proposed project will include 140 hotel rooms, 85 condos and a 510-space parking garage. The village has pushed for a new hotel in its downtown and is kicking in $500,000 over the first two years to help subsidize the hotel operation.

The village is also donating the land under its garage, valued by an appraiser at $4.2 million, and another $1.1 million because the planned public garage would crossover onto the developer’s piece of land. Oak Park is paying $9.8 million to build 300 public spaces in the new garage, replacing its old 340-space garage.

Commissioners Gary Belenke, Victor Guarino and Susan Roberts voted against the project. The 204-foot height, 124 feet taller than what Oak Park zoning allows, along with the 73-space shortage of parking were some of the main concerns of the objectors.

“I couldn’t disagree with everything you folks said more,” Belenke said to those who voted in favor.

Belenke cited the village’s master plan for Oak Park’s main shopping district that was put together by a consultant in 2004. The plan called for a much larger 750-space parking garage at the corner of Lake and Forest.

“That may be overkill, but I think it was put there for a reason,” Belenke said. “The reason is, whether we like it or not, people who shop want to drive to downtown Oak Park. And if we say we’re going to change habits by not providing as much parking, what you’re going to end up with is no customers.”

Belenke also questioned whether the condo portion of the project would be successful, with average prices for units proposed at $611,000.

Roberts, who also objected to the amount of parking provided, believed that the proposed 20-story tower doesn’t fit in with the surrounding area and would be more at home in Evanston.

“A big glass structure doesn’t compliment anything in that neighborhood,” she said.

“It’s an extraordinary variance, and I have to be honest, it does concern me a bit,” Commissioner Moran said of the proposed height before she voted in favor.

On the other side, commissioners believed the height was necessary to fit all the desired uses while keeping the building attractive. As for parking, they argued that the downtown master plan wasn’t gospel, and village parking counts showed that the current garage is underused.

Some, such as Commissioner Rouse, expressed concerns about subsidizing a hotel to compete with the two others in town – The Write Inn and the Carleton of Oak Park. But deciding on the subsidy is the responsibility of the village board and not the commission, he added.

“If it was, I wouldn’t vote for the proposal because I think it’s unfair,” Rouse said. “It’s completely unfair, and it harms two existing businesses that provide a great service to the village. I think it’s wrong, but I’m not the village board.”

Michael Glazier, principal for Sertus, believes the business-oriented hotel will create new demand and not snatch customers away from Oak Park’s two older establishments.

“If you build a steakhouse where there’s never been a steakhouse, it doesn’t really take away from McDonald’s,” Glazier said.

The commission added a list of conditions in approving the five variances, including taking 40 spots away from the condos and using those as shared parking, along with pushing the developer to pursue silver-LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. Also, as “compensating benefits” to the public for providing the zoning allowances, the commission is requiring the developer to pay for a piece of public art near the development, along with opening a sky lounge for the public at the top of the hotel.

Commissioners also asked the developer to change the proposed garage to one-way traffic, making it friendlier to shoppers.

Sertus was also asking the commission for eight special-use permits for its building. The commission rejected five of them, for a financial institution on the first floor, a medical office, a print shop, health or fitness facility, and an artist studio. They allowed the other three, for an exterior ATM, hotel, and municipal parking garage.

Opponents of the development, who have grown in numbers since the commission’s hearings started in September, were disappointed by the commission’s decision.

Resident David Barsotti felt that the decision was predetermined before the commission even started the hearings, with the village board already signing an agreement with the developer before the process started.

“It’s a shame that the village wasn’t willing to stand up and get more spaces, and it’s a shame that they didn’t go ahead and work with the developer to do that as well,” said Jason Smith, village resident and owner of The Book Table in downtown Oak Park. “It’s not a good day for Oak Park.”

Kevin Murphy, a resident of Forest Avenue, who grilled the developer for several hours during previous hearings, was “tired” and “disappointed” after the decision. He put together a 30-page memo to commissioners, arguing why they shouldn’t permit the zoning allowances. Among his arguments were that the development didn’t fit in with the neighborhood, didn’t provide enough parking, would place a burden on the operations of the village, and the application “dramatically overstates” the economic benefits to the village.

“There is no requested site development allowance that won’t be granted. There is no proposed plan development that wouldn’t receive a blessing because this thing is just wildly out of scale on height, density and parking at a minimum,” Murphy said.

“We have essentially eviscerated the zoning ordinance,” he added later.

The plan commission will reconvene on Feb. 18 to approve its “findings of fact” on the project, a report sent to the village board to explain the decision. The commission’s advice is advisory as the village board will have the final say on any zoning allowances and special-use permits. The board is expected to make a final ruling at its March 1 meeting, said Village Planner Craig Failor.

After the meeting, Glazier said he doesn’t think it’s a done deal yet, as they’ll wait for the board’s decision. He insisted that it wasn’t a forgone conclusion.

“Despite what some detractors of the project have suggested, there is absolutely no guarantee,” Glazier said. “We’re hopeful and working with the community, the powers that be, plan commission, staff and the board to try to get the project approved as quickly as possible.”

If the board approves it, the next step, said Glazier is to start preparing drawings of the building and then to go seek financing. Sertus hopes to start early work on the site in June, with construction wrapping up in early 2012.

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