The Oak Park Board of Trustees unanimously approved a proposal for a 37-unit affordable apartment building at the corner of South Oak Park Avenue and Van Buren Street at its Oct. 15 meeting.
Tensions ran high at Oak Park Village Hall Monday night, with the impassioned testimony from more than a dozen opponents and supporters of the project by Boston-based Community Builders, Inc.
The nonprofit real estate developer’s project will be built on a vacant parcel of land that once housed a gas station and, later, a makeshift parking lot, which has been fenced off for the last couple of years in the Southtown Business District.
The meeting opened with a speech from Oak Park Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb.
“One of the things that makes Oak Park a special place to live is it is accepting of all people, regardless of their socioeconomic or racial background,” he said. “We want people to belong in our village.”
The project was recommended for approval by the Oak Park Plan Commission and supported by the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation.
Testimony at the meeting was almost evenly split between supporters and opponents.
Thelmare Varnado, who lives near the building site, said she opposed the project because of its density and because it would put too many low-income residents in one place.
“It will hurt property values,” she said. “No one will want to buy property beside or near it. Resale values will go down, and mine at retirement time.”
Milton Clark, who also lives near the project, criticized the village for its creation of an affordable housing fund that allows developers of high-rise projects downtown to contribute money, rather than include affordable units in their downtown developments.
The village is poised to contribute $500,000 to the Community Builders project from the fund.
“You’ve given developers too easy of a way out,” he said. “They should have included affordable housing in those buildings. Now [the village] is making another bad decision.”
Resident Amy Dean said the village is facing an “affordable housing crisis” and more families are paying over 30 percent of their monthly income for rent.
Dean acknowledged the argument for financial contributions to an affordable housing fund in lieu of including units in luxury apartment buildings but added “that time has passed.”
David Mann, chairman of the Plan Commission, said that the commission was not concerned with density, largely because of the size of the units, which will mainly be comprised of one-bedroom and efficiency apartments. He noted that the building is projected to house fewer than 50 people.
Trustees unanimously supported the project and called on residents nearby to welcome the new development and its tenants.
Trustee Deno Andrews said his work with ex-offenders – Andrews is the former owner of Felony Franks restaurant, which hired people who have spent time in prison – put him touch with the deplorable conditions under which many low-income people live.
He said one of the best ways to prevent recidivism is to provide safe, affordable housing for people that give them easy access to work.
Trustee Jim Taglia said that Community Builders has a national reputation for building quality developments and has over 11,000 units across the country under management or owned outright. He reminded the board that “Oak Park taxpayers are not subsidizing this. Period.”
Trustee Dan Moroney said he, too, supports the project but took issue with the vitriol of comments in online forums from supporters of the project.
“[Opponents] have been slandered in a lot of ways,” he said. “That doesn’t feel good when someone takes your opinion or feelings and labels you a NIMBY [not in my backyard] or intolerant.”