Despite a general feeling of hesitation, River Forest trustees agreed to reimburse the developer of a five-story, mixed-use property at the intersection of Lake Street and Lathrop Avenue for demolition and environmental remediation, but only if trustees vote to take back the property.
“I completely understand a bit of the frustration and certainly the confidence issues,” Village President Cathy Adduci said at a board meeting on March 11. “But I think we’re further along than we’ve ever been.”
After nearly a decade of discussion, trustees approved the Lake and Lathrop development in September 2018, amid some community support but some outcry over the project’s design, height and potential impact on traffic.
Village Administrator Eric Palm said the updated redevelopment agreement establishes construction timelines and includes a “clawback” provision that allows the village, if it chooses, to take the property back from the developer — but only if it reimburses it for any remediation, demolition and professional costs incurred. Developer Lake and Lathrop LLC — comprised of Sedgwick Development and Keystone Ventures — estimated demolition at $250,000 and the village’s environmental consultant estimated soil remediation at $1.2 million, which is what reimbursement is capped at.
“No one would reasonably go ahead and do that work if they were potentially going to lose that property and the village had the clawback provision, so it makes sense to go ahead and put that in there,” Palm said at the meeting. “Pragmatically speaking, if that were to take place, we would ultimately go and pay that off using various fund reserves, or then we could also take a loan out on the property, similar to what the developer does in some cases. We could even take that over. But I don’t want to get too far down that road because we’re hoping that never has to happen.”
River Forest has also committed $1.9 million to the development in tax-increment financing (TIF) funds for the cost of the land and has so far paid out about $1,778,000 of that amount. Once the developer pays its 2017 and 2018 taxes on the Lake and Lathrop space, the village will pay back the approximately $161,000 still owed, Palm said at the meeting. Lake and Lathrop LLC is seeking a “certificate of error” from the Cook County Assessor for how the property was assessed during those tax years.
“The properties are still being assessed at full occupancy, which is not correct because of the vacancies,” Palm said at the meeting. “The developer has indicated that he will be working in earnest to have those taxes paid.”
The updated agreement said that the developer must submit permits by June, start construction in December and complete construction by June 2021. If the developer misses the June deadline, it must renegotiate another redevelopment agreement with the village.
Trustee Patty Henek noted there was a precedent of extending village deadlines for this developer.
“What I struggle with, in terms of that decision, is how often do we keep doing that before we decide we have to cut ties and be done and move on?” Henek said at the meeting.
She added: “Say in a year it falls apart, now we’ve covered all the costs incurred, we’ve not only done that, we’ve also lost a year’s time to try and develop the property differently.”
Adduci said decisions to extend redevelopment agreements are “not taken lightly” and that the clawback provision allows the village board to decide if it wants to assume the property.
“We want to get this demolished and remediated, we want to get it done. So all we’re saying is, regardless, in the case of when we claw it back, that we’re going to reimburse the developer when we claw it back because it will be ours, clean and done with,” she said at the meeting.
Trustee Mike Gibbs said reimbursing the developer for demolition and remediation could help speed the project along.
“If we want the project to proceed from today, they need to start doing some things to the property that, yes, we own. There’s no incentive at all for the developer to move anything forward if he doesn’t see the end,” Gibbs said at the meeting.
He added: “We’re encouraging them to start the demolition before a private entity might start that date. They might feel more comfortable waiting until they have more sales.”
Palm said he believed four contracts have already been signed for the Lake and Lathrop condos but estimated that the developer needed 12 before it could get the financing necessary to tear down and environmentally remediate the properties.
Trustee Susan Conti said that she would love to see this project move forward.
“I think the prevailing feeling around the board table is [a lack of] confidence in the developer, and if we really are going to have to execute the clawback, which none of us want to do,” Conti said at the meeting. “We want to see this go forward. I think it’s the confidence factor that’s holding us back.”
Trustee Carmela Corsini said she feels the agreement covers the village in all scenarios, adding that a newly elected board in June will have to “evaluate” where the developer is then.
“We’ve been here before and seen delays before. Obviously the confidence level, everyone’s just a little bit hesitant, obviously it’s a big concern, you want to see this move forward,” Corsini said at the meeting. “Obviously we want to make sure everybody has the best intentions from a project standpoint. I feel this [redevelopment agreement] covers us appropriately, so we’ll see what happens.”
Trustees voted 4-1 in favor of the agreement, with trustee Patty Henek dissenting, Tom Cargie absent and Respicio Vazquez recusing himself, citing a common law conflict of interest since he works for the law firm that represents River Forest School District 90 and Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200.