820 W. Madison

Members of the Oak Park Plan Commission expressed concerns last week about a controversial apartment building proposal for Madison Street, the first of what will likely be many meetings on the development.

Commissioners worried whether the Chicago-based developer looking to adapt the vacant Comcast building will be able to fill the retail space at the ground floor.

“There’s a real problem with the commercial” portion of the development, said Commissioner Steven Rouse.

Interfaith Housing Development Corp. is looking to build a four-story apartment complex for low-income individuals at 820 W. Madison. They want to gut and reuse the building, which was constructed in the 1920s as an auto dealer. The proposed building is too tall, too dense and doesn’t provide enough parking under village zoning rules, so the developer is asking the commission for variances.

The Dec. 16 meeting was the first of at least five in the coming months, as the plan commission — a volunteer panel of nine citizens that makes recommendations to the village board on planning and land use — tries to decide whether Interfaith should get the eight zoning variances it’s seeking.

Along with 51 apartments, the building would have 5,200 square feet of retail space, but with no dedicated parking spots. The village requires at least nine spots to go with the storefront, but a study conducted by Interfaith says there is ample parking available along Madison Street, Grove Avenue and in the nearby 32-space parking lot that the developer is offering for apartment tenants.

Rouse and others on the commission expressed concern about the viability of the retail space without any dedicated parking spots.

Perry Vietti, the chief operating officer for Interfaith, said it wasn’t their first inclination to incorporate retail into the building. But such an inclusion was strongly urged in the Madison Street corridor plan, a roadmap that the village put together a few years ago on how to develop the commercial stretch.

Jason Schulz, the commercial real estate broker for the project, said they were likely targeting “grab-and-go” businesses for the space, such as coffee or sandwich shops. He acknowledged the economy was challenging, but said the building won’t be ready to lease for another two years, when things may be improved.

Roughly 50 people showed up to the meeting, though attendees did not get a chance to testify or question the developers. Some bemoaned the project briefly before being hushed by the commission.

“This greatly affects my property values, and if you don’t believe it, you are living in a dream world,” Victoria Peterson shouted from the audience, before the commission’s head asked her to stop.

Interfaith and its two partners, the Oak Park Housing Authority and Catholic Charities, spent the bulk of the four-hour meeting laying out the details of their project. The apartments are targeted at low-income singles, preferably people who already live or work in Oak Park and earn less than $26,300. They must be at least 18 and are allowed to have up to one child under the age of 18. The developers anticipate residents will be a mix of veterans, low-wage workers and people with disabilities, said Ed Solan, executive director for the Housing Authority, which would manage the building.

Solan said his organization has a waiting list of more than 200 people who are looking for this type of housing. Opponents have argued that there is already a plethora of apartments available in Oak Park, and that grouping 51 poor people into the same building is a bad idea.

The next meeting is scheduled for Jan. 6, when residents are expected to start cross-examining Interfaith and its two partners. The commission is hoping to make a decision in March. Further meetings about the project are planned for Jan. 20, Feb. 3 and 17, and March 3.

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