Will the long-delayed, future tallest building in Oak Park ever get built? Elected officials will have their say come January.
A developer has been working for years trying to erect a 20-story high-rise at the corner of Lake Street and Forest Avenue, which now includes apartments and retail space. But to do so, Chicago-based Sertus Capital Partners needs an OK on two zoning variances related to parking and density.
The Oak Park Plan Commission turned down those variances in a 4-4 vote last month. Now it’s up to the village board to make the final decision, which it plans to do on Jan. 9.
Critics and supporters alike spoke up at Monday’s village board meeting, trying to influence the final decision. Council chambers was mostly filled with people opposed to the project. They cheered and clapped after others spoke against it.
Kevin Murphy, who lives nearby on Forest Avenue, said Oak Park would “eviscerate” its zoning rules by green-lighting the development. The developers want to build 172 more apartments than zoning allows, and are providing 85 less parking spots than zoning requires.
“These are dramatic differences that would irreparably shatter the protections of the ordinance and forever alter the character of the neighborhood,” Murphy said.
Murphy thinks the $91 million project is far too costly for taxpayers. Oak Park is paying $8.4 million to build 300 spaces in the 588-space garage and is conveying the land under its aging public garage to the developer for $1, while Sertus would pick up the rest of the tab.
Lenore Harris, vice president of the Kenilworth Terrace condo association, a 78-unit building nearby, called the towering glass building “aesthetically offensive” in the surrounding neighborhood. She thinks the developer is trying to pull a “bait and switch” on the village by first getting approval for a hotel tower, and then trying to change to apartments.
“It makes the board, and by extension the citizens of Oak Park, look like we’re a bunch of dummies,” she said.
On the other side, the developers said the economy forced the switch, as it was much more difficult to build a hotel and condos. They say studies show a need for more rental apartments in downtown Oak Park. Some have asked why they couldn’t lower the height, but Rolando Acosta, an attorney for Sertus, said they prefer to stick with the building that was already designed, rather than completely starting over.
“It makes sense to take an approved mass that has been found to have no negative impacts, and an approved height that has been found to have no negative impacts, and see if we can repurpose that building for residential, as opposed to starting from scratch,” he said.
Nancy Nemetz, the leasing agent for Mills Park Tower, a high-rise senior building, believes the project would have a positive effect on the community. It would give residents who can’t afford to buy a way into the village, bring shoppers to downtown Oak Park and enhance local architecture.
“Ultimately this is not about building another building in Oak Park; it’s about building an opportunity,” she said.
Linda Bolte, chair of the plan commission, said the reasons they failed to approve the development included density, the perceived “backdoor” method of retaining the original height, and frustrations that commissioners couldn’t discuss other aspects of the proposal outside the two zoning variances.
Village trustees held off on discussing the development on Monday. They’re hoping to start their deliberations on Jan. 9, following the December recess.