Two nonprofit developers are proposing to build a mixed-use, four-story building on the long vacant lot at Madison Street and Highland Avenue in Oak Park, the site of the former P.M. Smith Funeral Home.
The developers, Mercy Housing Lakefront and Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives, unveiled their preliminary plans on July 30 at a community meeting held in the Longfellow Park Field House.
They presented a site plan for a building showing about 12,000 square feet of retail space at street level and three floors of affordable apartments above. The developers hope to build 55 to 60 apartments, a mix of studios, one-bedroom, two-bedroom and three-bedroom apartments.
Rents are estimated to be around $750 to $760 for studios, $800 to $825 for a one-bedroom apartment, $975 for a two-bedroom, and around $1100 for a three-bedroom apartment.
The project will be funded in part by the sale of Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC), a federal program. Under the LIHTC program rents are limited to what is considered affordable to someone with an income of 60 percent of the median income of an area.
Only those with incomes of no more than $32,000 to $53,000, depending on family size and the type of apartment rented, would be eligible to rent an apartment in the building, according to federal rules.
The developers say that their target market includes those who work in Oak Park, but cannot afford to live in Oak Park, including restaurant workers, teachers and public employees.
“There is a need for workforce housing in this community,” said David Doig, the president of Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives. “You have thousands of people who work in this community who can’t afford to live here.”
People with Section 8 housing vouchers would be eligible to rent apartments in the building, although Mark Angelini, the president of Mercy Housing Lakefront, said that the building is not designed to be low-income housing. Angelini predicted most of the tenants would be range in age from their 20s to their 50s.
Angelini said Mercy Housing Lakefront has extensive experience in building and running rental properties and would manage the property after it is built. He said the building would have a permanent onsite management office.
“Trust me, we’re not into Soviet-style housing,” Angelini said. “We’re very proud of what we do. We are an award-winning firm. We take our architecture very seriously.”
Angelini said Mercy has never sold one of its properties.
“We don’t build and flip,” Angelini said.
Mercy Housing Lakefront specializes in building and operating multifamily, veterans, and supportive housing. They have built and run 26 different developments in Illinois. This would be Mercy Housing’s first project in Oak Park, but Angelini has lived in Oak Park for the past 27 years.
Doig also knows Oak Park well. Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives was founded as a subsidiary of the now-defunct Park National Bank, and Doig used to live in the Austin neighborhood.
“We look at this project as sort of a coming home of sorts,” Doig said.
The developers have hired attorney Steven Rouse, who is not only an Oak Park resident but a former member of the Oak Park Plan Commission and the former chairman of the Oak Park Zoning Board of Appeals.
They plan to submit a Planned Unit Development application to the village by the end of August or early September. The proposal will then go before the plan commission and ultimately be voted upon by the village board.
“Our hope is to bring this before a formal public meeting sometime in October,” Doig said.
If all goes well, the developers say they would like to begin construction in a year or so and open the building by the mid to late 2017.
Rouse said the developers will be seeking modest variances, but fewer than previous developers obtained when they planned to build a mixed-use office building on the site. That project generated opposition from neighbors and ultimately was abandoned.
“The biggest positive in this development is that our development is not the development that was previously approved by the village board,” Rouse said. “It’s a less intensive use than what was previously approved by the village board. There will be some modest variances that we’ll be seeking.”
The preliminary site plan calls for 72 parking spots, including 54 parking places for the residents. Some neighbors who attended Thursday’s meeting told the developers that more parking was needed. The developers said they would conduct a traffic study but said they expected that some tenants would not own cars.
“People are shedding cars,” Angelini said. “This is one of the best-served locations that I can think of with regard to rapid transit.”
Some of the residents who live near the proposed project thought the building was too large for the neighborhood on the south side of Madison Street.
“This is going to change the whole culture of the street,” said Anne Sperling, who lives in the 500 block of Highland Avenue. “I think the added density to the neighborhood is going to be a huge problem.”
But Doig said that the village’s comprehensive plan calls for greater density on commercial strips such as Madison Street.
“Madison can support more density,” said Doig, who is handling the retail portion of the project. “Part of having good retail is density. If you have the density, the retail will be there.”
One purpose of the meeting Thursday was to get input from residents about what sort of retail establishment residents would like see in the building.
Doig said that he foresees a mix of national and local establishments and maybe three to four retail establishments.
“We’re not going to have noxious uses,” said Doig, who added that they would not lease to a currency exchange. “This is not going to be what they call a power center and destination retail.”
The developers have a letter of intent to purchase the property from the Schuler family, but would not buy the property until the village approves the proposal.
Doig said the completed development would generate approximately $100,000 to $150,000 in property tax revenue for the village.
Donna Andree, who lives in the 500 block of Highland Avenue expressed concerns about congestion and traffic and worries that delivery trucks will block her garage in the morning.
“I just think this area is not big enough for this development,” Andree said.
But Andree said she appreciated the chance to talk to developers and provide input. She said that she prefers this proposal to the office building proposal.
“I think these are good people,” Andree said.