First reported 1/20/2010 11:10 a.m.

River Forest officials saw pages 77-79 in the draft of their new corridor study as simply identifying two blocks along Harlem Avenue that could be long-term redevelopment opportunities. Residents of the two affected blocks saw the language on those pages as an economic bull’s eye on their collective back.

The pages, titled “Harlem Avenue Corridor Land-Use Plan,” note that the 700 and 1500 blocks of Harlem are zoned multifamily residential. The plan also identifies them as “land-use transition areas” open to possible commercial uses “which require the large-scale redevelopment of multifamily residential properties into unified commercial/mixed-use development.”

More than 70 people packed the community room in village hall for last week’s village board committee of the whole meeting. Only one of the 26 people who addressed the board expressed even qualified support for blue lining of the Harlem Avenue sites for potential mixed-use development. The others all demanded the village board literally rip the pages out of the study.

After two-and-one-half-hours of public comment, the board unanimously agreed to pass the draft of the corridor study on to the full board for a formal vote, but with amended wording eliminating the land-use transition designation and any mention of future mixed redevelopment on Harlem.

The amended study also deleted proposed parking changes to a townhouse complex on North Avenue near Forest Avenue. Those changes will now be negotiated directly between the village and the townhouse owners, outside of the village’s comprehensive planning process.

Passionate opposition

One speaker called the Harlem Avenue transition designation “a black cloud over our property.”

“All planning has social impacts,” said Daniel Lauber, a local resident who is an urban planner. He called designating the two areas on Harlem as transitional, “setting the stage for eventual redevelopment.”

David Flint, a public administration professor at UIC, questioned the chilling effect the earmarks would have on the identified neighborhoods. He argued for protecting the availability of such affordable condo and rental residences, saying, “We don’t just need housing that’s affordable, we need the people who need housing that’s affordable.”

Board members acknowledged the concerns, while saying they did not intend to target anyone.

“It does kind of put a target on their backs,” trustee Mike Gibbs said.

“I certainly don’t mean to target anybody, or eliminate affordable housing,” said trustee Susan Conti. “It never occurred to me.”

Village President John Rigas noted that John Houseal, the village’s planning consultant, was just doing what he was directed to do, which was to develop ideas.

“These are concepts, and you can’t fault John for coming up with ideas,” said Rigas.

Houseal, also a River Forest resident, calmly addressed residents’ specific concerns throughout the meeting. Later he appeared nonplussed by the intense reaction to the Harlem concept. He said such discussion is all part of any planning process.

“Part of planning is coming up with ideas, and then we have a community discussion of those ideas,” said Houseal. He called the draft plan “extremely well received with the exception of those two concepts.”


Poor communication by village alleged

Numerous residents complained last Tuesday night that they weren’t informed about the content of the corridor study. Several said they’d heard about Tuesday’s public meeting via fliers left on their front door.

While trustees acknowledged that communication outreach needs to be improved, the village did, in fact, schedule a public hearing of the village’s Plan Commission Nov. 17, to present the draft corridor study and hear resident input. The meeting was held in the Willard School auditorium in order to accommodate an expected larger-than-usual crowd. With the exception of one resident, the audience consisted of two newspaper reporters and trustee Conti.

At the Nov. 25 village board meeting, Conti expressed some concern about the lack of public turnout. She also urged residents to let elected officials know what they thought, either through public comment at the Dec. 7 village board meeting or online.

A Wednesday Journal article published Dec. 2 noted the corridor study “also touches on the concept of a new business district on Harlem Avenue north from Oak Street to Chicago Avenue.”

As was also noted in the paper two months ago, a copy of the draft study, as well as a PDF of all survey results and summaries of the numerous meetings are available on the village’s Web site,  

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