After months of meetings, the Oak Park Plan Commission appears set to decide whether to green-light a controversial apartment building proposal near Oak Park Avenue and Madison.
The commission heard closing arguments last week from both neighbors and a Chicago-based developer hoping to create a four-story, 51-unit apartment building for low-income singles at 801 Madison. Commissioners plan to reconvene on March 3 to make a final recommendation on the project.
They started discussing the proposal on Feb. 17, giving glimpses of their opinions, but held off on a full-blown debate until next month.
Commissioner Mark Benson said his main concern is the building’s lack of parking. The developer is only providing 32 spaces for 51 units, arguing that many of the low-income tenants will use public transportation.
“The parking, to me, is a dramatic problem. Not just a problem, a dramatic problem,” Benson said.
He alluded to studies showing that poor people still own cars and need their vehicles to get to work and to move up in life. Parking is a “deal breaker,” too, for Commissioner Susan Roberts.
Commissioner Gail Moran said she wasn’t as concerned about parking for residents as she was for the commercial space on the ground floor. She hoped the developer, Interfaith Housing Development Corp., would acquire more parking before breaking ground and also keep a manager at the building 24 hours a day.
“I think that would give the neighbors some comfort that this is not just a building of 51 people without any type of assistance or supervision on site,” Moran said.
Commissioner Steve Rouse said he had major concerns when the development was first proposed, many of which were addressed during the hearings. While he still has some quibbles, he believes that overall it’s an “intelligent” reuse of a “horrible” looking building. If a for-profit developer were buying the property, he said, the proposal might be much worse — taller with far more apartments.
“It would be much more of an imposition on this neighborhood,” he said.
The developers are targeting the building to people who live or work in Oak Park already, but who can’t afford to live on their own. They said last week that they couldn’t give a firm number on what percentage of tenants would come from Oak Park.
Rouse said such vagueness isn’t reassuring to neighbors.
“You’re not providing anyone any comfort in the neighborhood because you’re not able to give any ratios,” he said.
Commission Chair Linda Bolte said neighbors brought up “legitimate” concerns in their closing arguments. Those included the need to do a six-month parking study after the building is filled up. She also expressed the importance of having a tenant list for the building that gives preference to seniors, individuals with disabilities and people who already live or work here.
The commission will continue deliberating and make a final decision on the project on March 3. The village board will have the final say, though, sometime in May.
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In their final chance to plead their case for building a low-income apartment building on Madison, developers last week tried to clarify the project’s potential tenant mix.
Developers say some details are yet to be negotiated and decided, but that doesn’t reassure neighbors such as Patricia O’Shea.
“What I heard was a lot of uncertainty and a lack of commitment around how the tenants will be picked,” said O’Shea, who started a Facebook page dedicated to the development called “Concerned Citizens-Madison Avenue Housing Project (Oak Park).”
Developers say they will not be picking tenants from the Oak Park Housing Authority’s 2004 housing choice voucher list (formerly called Section 8). Rather, they were using that list of 2,000 people to demonstrate a need for the project, said Executive Director Ed Solan. (About 1,400 individuals are still on the list.)
The developers plan to create a new list of eligible tenants, using different criteria, though it’s possible that people from the voucher list could qualify, he said.
They’re seeking low-income tax credits from the federal government to help fund the project. But to get that funding, Solan said their tenant plan needs to be approved by the Illinois Housing Development Authority (IHDA).
Solan said they plan to do rental screenings, background checks and social service evaluations of each potential tenant. They’re pitching the building to people who already live or work in Oak Park but can’t afford to live here. In The Oaks, a senior building in Oak Park, the housing authority said roughly 85 percent of its tenants came from Oak Park.
Solan and Perry Vietti, chief operating officer for Interfaith Housing Development Corp., have declined to nail down the exact ratio of Oak Parkers who would get into this new building. They said their funders are more concerned with possible discrimination in tenant selection, Solan said. He emphasized that the “vast” majority of tenants will be Oak Parkers, but said they won’t give a number because they don’t want to be called liars if the percentage changes.
“We’re very reluctant, quite frankly, to come out with a specific number at this point for fear that we’re going to be castigated at some point because it may not be what our initial intent was,” Solan said in an interview.
“I get that, but it feels like they’re asking us to get into a racecar without putting on a seatbelt,” O’Shea said.
At a hearing last week, Solan also said low-income seniors can also live in the building, and up to 20 percent of the units will be handicap accessible.
Opponents have expressed dismay that tenants could get kicked out of the building for getting married or raising their incomes over $26,300. Vietti said the developers only look at income when tenants first enter, and they’d only be asked to leave if they started earning 140 percent of the area median income — more than $80,000.
However, if tenants get married while living there, Solan said, the developers would look to find new accommodations, since the building is designed only for single people.