River Forest Cleaners on Lake Street was the source of contamination that spurred redevelopment for the southwest block of Lake and Lathrop.

Lake and Lathrop: A plan emerges

In front of and behind closed doors, much of the River Forest village board’s attention this year was devoted to the biggest economic development in town in years: a new proposal for the southwest corner of Lake and Lathrop.

Today, the block hosts small businesses like Annie’s Beef, James Anthony Salon, My Gym and River Forest Cleaners. But under a plan submitted by local developer Tim Hague and Keystone Ventures, much of the block would be razed and replaced with a five-story retail-condo building.

The first floor would feature shops, including a River Forest branch of Forest Park National Bank, according to a proposal first submitted in June. The four floors above would hold condos.

But the project was the subject of contentious debate all year long between factions on the village board, with minority board members Steve Dudek and Steve Hoke repeatedly accusing Village President John Rigas of making backroom sweetheart deals with Hague, who was the only bidder on the project.

Rigas and members of the board’s majority fiercely denied the accusations, saying Hague was simply a local developer who was familiar with the situation and that the village was lucky to get even one proposal in this economy.

The board held sporadic meetings on the topic throughout the year, but little was released publicly after Hague’s initial proposal was unveiled this summer. Many of the details on the project’s logistics, from condo sizes and prices to the subsidy Hague was requesting from the village, weren’t discussed publicly until December.

To use money from the village’s $5 million in economic development cash, though, the money had to be committed by the end of the year when the TIF fund ends.

Hague finally came to the board in December to formally request a $2.4 million subsidy for the project, which the board knocked down to $1.9 million.

The money is designated for:

Bridging the gap between the value of the undeveloped land and the value of the land with buildings on it, so Hague doesn’t pay a premium for buildings he’s simply going to knock down

Helping build out spaces in the final project to make it more appealing to businesses, like restaurants, which pull in an extra 1 percent in sales taxes

Cleaning up the dry cleaning chemicals that contaminate the property.

Dry cleaning contamination muddies the picture

One thing that originally spurred the development of Lake and Lathrop — and then threatened to derail it — was the deep-rooted contamination from dry cleaning chemicals on the site.

River Forest Cleaners, which has been operating on the block for decades, stored its spent chemicals on site for years. Testing at the beginning of this year by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) showed contamination from the site had spread from the dry cleaner’s property to soil as far away as St. Luke’s Church across the street.

While contamination at St. Luke’s is below the foundation, harmful vapors from the chemicals weren’t found to be penetrating the building itself. However, two of River Forest Cleaners’ neighbors did have problems with vapor levels that weren’t immediately dangerous but could cause harm over time.

So at the EPA’s stern suggestion, River Forest Cleaners gave its neighbors My Gym and Annie’s Beef vapor mitigation systems late this year, which vent the vapors from below the foundation.

The dry cleaner, its original owners and several other parties are currently embroiled in a lawsuit over the contamination with Forest Park National Bank, which foreclosed on a home around the corner on Ashland Avenue that the bank says is also contaminated.

The dry cleaner’s lawyer estimates that a cleanup of the site would cost about $1 million. That will be a top priority when the site is redeveloped.

Village hall in flux

River Forest’s still-new police chief had been a point of pride in town. A year and a half into his tenure, Frank Limon had cut the village’s crime rate by 20 percent and built rock-solid ties with other regional departments.

The former head of the Chicago Police Department’s gang crimes unit had quickly taken control of a department in disarray and turned it around.

Then, one day in March, he suddenly announced his departure.

A press conference in New Haven, Conn., identifying Limon as the new chief of that town’s police force caught village officials off guard.

The board pointed fingers, with trustees Hoke and Dudek claiming that Limon had wanted a contract — a fact that President Rigas disputed.

But Limon wasn’t the last to leave in 2010.

Like dominos falling, Public Works Director Greg Kramer retired, Finance Director Joan Rock left for a job in Geneva, and finally, the village board decided to let Village Administrator Steve Gutierrez go after 20 years with the village.

‘200-year storm’ floods homes

In the middle of the summer, a massive storm hit. Dropping eight inches of water in an 18-hour span, homes all over town were hit hard — particularly in the village’s northeast corner.

Some homes next to the Dominican Priory fields got walloped, as water rushed off the fields and filled up in the drainage ditches alongside the parks.

In some cases, it rose up to residents’ back windows, pouring water into their basements and devastating homes.

The village was declared a disaster area by the federal government, allowing residents to apply for federal cash to dig out from the deluge.

Village Trustee Cathy Adduci was one of those flooded near the Priory, and she led the village board as they tried to figure out just what happened during the storm, and how to prevent it from happening again.

It turned out that Adduci’s home, and one other next to the Priory, were set a few inches below the line to which water from the drainage ditches had been designed to rise before draining into the street.

It was one of the biggest revelations from a flood report commissioned by the village. Instead of redesigning the drainage trenches to hold less water, the report said, the homes’ lowest water entry point should be raised.

New leadership: Palm hired as village administrator

After a summer in limbo and a months-long hiring process, the village board finally settled on a replacement for former village administrator Steve Gutierrez in August: Eric Palm, who was then the 34-year-old village administrator of the Kane County town of Hampshire.

Palm came to town with experience locally, as assistant to the city manager in Des Plaines, and in the smaller but booming ex-urban town of Hampshire.

In both jobs, he focused on economic development, something River Forest has been seeking as they neared the deadline for spending TIF funds before the pool of cash expired after 22 years.

“I think we’d like to see if there’s different ways to do certain things,” Rigas said at the time of the hire.

“We’d like to have him come in and assess things and see if he thinks they should change.”

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