One development team has met the Village of River Forest’s deadline for proposals to redevelop the block-long stretch of Lake Street at Lathrop. And a second developer was granted a two-week extension by the village board Monday evening after a pledge to forward a proposal.

While still officially confidential, it is clear that the initial proposal is a joint effort from River Forest commercial property developer Tim Hague and Focus Development, a firm specializing in residential projects. Hague and Focus have worked together previously on mixed use projects in Oak Park and Forest Park when Hague was involved with Taxman Development. Hague’s development company is called Keystone Ventures.

The clock is ticking in River Forest toward the expiration of two decades’ worth of TIF money totaling $6 million. The development cash must be contracted out by Dec 31 or returned to the village’s various taxing bodies. Annie’s Italian Beef and a string of small service businesses currently occupy the village’s most developable site at Lake and Lathrop. But the location has three strikes against it: a feeble economy, multiple owners, and an underground dry-cleaning chemical contamination that will be expensive to clean up.

“The ideal that we’ve talked about is mixed use,” said President John Rigas. “First floor retail and maybe office space on the second floor, and residential above that. Maybe up to five stories.” Rigas says the location “is not going to generate huge amounts of sales taxes,” because it will probably still be leased by service businesses.

Previous Focus partnerships in the area include residential and mixed use developments like The Grove condominiums and Madison Commons in Forest Park and Euclid Commons on the former Tasty Dog site in Oak Park.

Although the proposal’s details are still confidential, it is believed that TIF funds would reimburse the cleanup of contamination caused by a dry cleaning chemical known commonly as “perc.” Property owner Ed Ditchfield, age 82, has owned the building housing the polluting drycleaner for more than 20 years. All agree Ditchfield is responsible for the remediation and he is said to be working on a plan with the Illinois EPA. One quote for the remediation was around $1 million.

Perc has also spread under the adjoining building co-owned by Oak Park Township Assessor Ali ElSaffar and under the back yard of a foreclosed home on Ashland now owned by Forest Park National Bank.

Forest Park National, says bank president Dan Watts, wants in on any new development on this site. “It makes sense for our bank to have a presence north of the train tracks to support our customers in River Forest. We are a stakeholder on that site.” Watts says “high-touch” banking which depends on “service and relationships” is needed in River Forest. Watts is a River Forest resident.

But relationships – allegedly chummy relationships – between bankers and developers disturb minority Trustee Steve Hoke. He predicted during his campaign for village president last year that there was a secret deal to demolish the Annie’s block and replace it with a bank.

“Why are we subsidizing developers with taxpayers money when we haven’t exhausted all the remedies we have available?” Hoke asked in an interview. He says the village should have sued Ditchfield to recover remediation costs before paying for anything out of TIF funds.

Watts co-owns a condo in Madison Commons, a Focus project. “They did a great job. It’s very well laid out,” with balconies and rooftop gardens, he says. He believes River Forest has a “need for residential housing that is not detached.”

But ElSaffar says no developers have approached him recently. “It’s a tough time to be selling condos,” says the township’s property assessor. He filed papers to reserve the right to sue Ditchfield himself, although he has not done so. “Potentially it’s a win-win if the cleanup can be resolved in the context of redevelopment.”

If nothing’s hammered out, the TIF money returns to the taxpayers. Hoke would vote for giving it to the District 90 elementary schools and the park district. “A cynic would say that we collected this money for 20 years and all we have to show for it is some wrought-iron fences.”

Other local taxing bodies, including Oak Park and River Forest High School would also be eligible for a share of TIF funds.

Hague, again, on North Avenue

Local commercial developer Tim Hague is not only in the mix for a possible remaking of Lake and Lathrop. He is also leading the effort to bring a Loyola Hospital immediate care center to the former site of Plunkett Furniture on North Avenue.

Hague’s Keystone Ventures discussed that possibility last week in a meeting with River Forest’s Development Review Board. Further discussions with that body and a formal proposal from Loyola are expected.

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Jean Lotus

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...