With a narrow Oak Park Plan Commission vote last week, the future, if any, of the Albion high-rise proposal for downtown Oak Park now likely rests with the full Oak Park Village Board.
By a 5-4 margin, the Plan Commission, at its Aug. 29 meeting, denied the Albion proposal for Lake Street at Forest Avenue. This week, the commission is expected to meet to put its vote into writing, in the form of recommendations that will be forwarded to the village board for final action. Under state and local law, it will take a super-majority 5-2 vote by the village board to override the commission’s recommendation.
Cara Pavlicek, Oak Park village manager, said on Sept. 1 that the Plan Commission recommendation will likely reach the village board agenda in October. She said the commission will need time to put its recommendation in writing, and the village board will need time to study it as well as the initial 500-plus page Albion development application. That, she believes, pushes the board debate into next month.
Pavlicek said the village board has 60 days to consider any recommendation from the Plan Commission.
The narrow rejection of the $80 million, 18-story apartment and retail project puts each village trustee and Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb on the spot in ultimately declaring their vote. The three trustees elected in April — Deno Andrews, Simone Boutet and Dan Moroney — each campaigned in part against the Albion proposal. But in separate interviews, Sept. 1, each said they were withholding judgment until they had read and considered the Plan Commission recommendation.
“It’s no mystery what I thought of the proposal,” said Andrews, “but nothing is a slam dunk for me. The project has changed since I ran. And I wear a different hat now. I have to consider all the facts.”
Moroney expressed surprise at the commission vote, saying he has watched most of the six commission meetings on cable TV. He made plain that the building currently on the northwest corner of Lake and Forest, a vacant two-story retail building, is “an atrocious gateway to the Wright district and downtown Oak Park. It is completely inadequate.” Moroney also was critical of Albion detractors, some of whom have suggested the site be turned into a public park.
He said he wants to explore what might be in the middle between Albion’s 18 stories and a park, noting that John Lynch, executive director of the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation, has told him it is either Albion or nothing. “I’m curious if that is a true claim. A lot of my vote will depend on that. No development will ever be perfect.”
Moroney, like trustees Andrews and Boutet, said he has been swamped with anti-Albion emails from residents. “I said in the campaign that it is easy to identify a problem, harder to identify the solution and even harder to get from Point A to Point B. I’ve had hundreds and hundreds of emails telling us to vote no. But none have suggested how to get from Point A to Point B. That is a major flaw of the ‘No’ campaign.”
Boutet said she would wait to see the Plan Commission recommendation. “I have a duty to read what they say,” she said, noting both the number of people opposed to the project as well as the close vote at the commission.
Abu-Taleb, interviewed Sept. 4, praised the Plan Commission.
“The work they did, the questions, weighing the benefits and all the stakeholders,” he said, they have served the village well. I’m really grateful for their work.”
Abu-Taleb, a strong proponent of the Albion project and economic development in Oak Park generally, called this “an ongoing process with the decision at the village board. I feel obligated, if the process is going to have integrity, to reserve my comments until it comes to the board. The village board has to have our own debate.”
But he reiterated his arguments that economic development is critical to the village’s vitality and to allow some chance to mitigate rising taxes.
The Aug. 29 meeting marked the sixth time the commission has met to discuss the Albion development. Again, as at those previous meetings, the proposal attracted opposition from some residents and commissioners concerned about the building’s impact on Austin Gardens, which sits just north of the site, and its design, which some, including a few commission members, said did not mesh well with the neighborhood.
“We’re disappointed in the Plan Commission’s vote, but we continue to believe our project is the best use for the site and will move Oak Park forward,” Andrew Yule, vice president of development at Albion Residential, wrote in a statement to Wednesday Journal. “We appreciated the opportunity to present facts and data during several Plan Commission meetings as well as a public process to respond in good faith to concerns and suggestions.”
Yule added Albion’s proposed development had the support of “the Economic Development Corporation, the Business and Civic Council, Downtown Oak Park and other business districts, business owners, residents, and neighbors.”
Yule, at the Aug. 29 meeting, stressed Albion has worked well and kept open communication with village staff, pointed to the recently opened Vantage building as evidence that there is demand for new housing in “transit-oriented” places like Oak Park and said Albion has not asked for any financial assistance from the village.
Mark Burkland, attorney for the Park District of Oak Park, voiced his opposition to the development, questioning the shade study conducted by Albion.
There were other issues voiced, too.
Plan Commissioner Lawrence Brozek, at the Aug. 29 meeting, asked if some of the building’s amenities, like its fitness room, as well as mechanical and electrical components and parking spaces, could be moved to the basement, in an effort to reduce the height of the building.
Commission Chair David Mann also suggested reducing the building’s height by four stories.
Albion President Jason Koehn added that the building hasn’t “gotten any less expensive during the process,” noting that Albion couldn’t lose any more of the rentable space from the existing proposal.
“Based on all that I’ve heard and seen here, I appreciate the design,” Mann said. “I think it’s gotten a lot better. I just think this is in the wrong place.”
Commissioners Douglas Gilbert, David Mann, Greg Marsey, Jeremy Burton and JoBeth Halpin voted against the proposal. Commissioners Glenn Brewer, Paul May, Kristin Nordman and Lawrence Brozek voted in favor.