Substantial design changes are expected to a proposed Madison Street apartment complex after intense objections from neighbors over density and traffic issues at a lengthy Jan. 9 meeting of the Oak Park plan commission. Members of the volunteer commission appeared to share some neighbor concerns. The hearing on the project at 435 to 451 Madison St. will resume March 5. 

The initial hearing lasted over four hours. Dozens of neighbors spoke out against the five-story, 48-unit complex proposed by Michigan Avenue Real Estate Group (MAREG). 

“I’m not against having the building that’s there now replaced with an apartment building. I think that’s a good thing,” Tina Birnbaum said in public comment. “But I think this proposed development is an attempt to put 10 pounds of stuff in a five-pound bag. It’s just too big; it’s too much.”

MAREG’s application includes five different zoning relief requests, including an increase in building height from the village maximum of 50 feet to 63 feet. It also proposes doubling the number of units from the allowed 24 units to 48. 

The building’s ground floor proposes 48 indoor parking spaces, which would be accessed through a vehicular entrance located on Gunderson Avenue, the adjacent residential street. 

“It’s a narrow street, it’s one lane,” Birnbaum said. That part of Gunderson Avenue is in close proximity to many schools, said Birnbaum.

“We got lots of kids walking by that particular area where we were told 620 cars a day are going to be going in and out,” she said. “It’s dangerous for kids.” 

The proposed complex’s effect on Gunderson was a chief concern for residents, echoed by many of the 20-odd public commenters who spoke out against the project.

“A lot of the people here are from Gunderson, but it also affects the homeowners on Elmwood [Avenue] as well,” said Prentice Harris. 

MAREG, Harris said, mapped the project out “as if no one lives on the east side of the lot.”

He also was unhappy that the proposed building’s balconies – one with every unit — would overlook his yard and those of his neighbors.

The developers and their children, Harris said, don’t have to live there and deal with the lack of privacy that the complex’s close proximity poses to homes. 

“Surely the builders are going to profit from the whole thing, but we’re losing,” he said. “The people here lose. The only people who will gain are the ones not living there.” 

Only two people spoke in support of the project. 

Paul Beckwith, who lives in the Albion high rise on Lake Street and has owned five homes in Oak Park over decades, said it’s a great opportunity for people who want to live in Oak Park but can’t afford a house, as well as for people in the senior demographic.

“There’s going to be a lot of older people, like me, that want to have an apartment,” he said.

He also supported the project for being a major revenue source for the village. 

“I want to do everything I can to raise more revenue in Oak Park. I love Oak Park,” Beckwith said.

Tim Kelly, a contractor, also spoke in favor of the proposal, citing the structural limitations of the one-story bow truss building that currently sits on the lot.

“The curvature of the building next to the parapet holds water and just wreaks havoc on the bow trusses,” said Kelly, who has been working on that building for 30 years.

The current building, Kelly said, is expensive to maintain. 

 “I don’t want to miss this opportunity to replace this tired building with this attractive building that’s being proposed here today. Before gravity takes it, please replace it with this nice building.”

Kelly was seemingly the only person who took kindly to the design of the apartment building. Many people disparaged the design, noting the property abuts the Gunderson Historic District.

“Architecturally, the building is ugly. It’s dark brick. They stick a couple pieces of limestone on it and call it art,” said Jim Polaski. “It’s not. What it is puts it out of character with the architecture in the neighborhood.”

The plan commission’s comments lined up pretty squarely with those of the public, agreeing that the design didn’t jive with that of the adjacent historic district.  

“I think the application is sloppy, inaccurate and incomplete,” said David Mann, plan commission chair. “There’s no way we can move forward without that being fixed.  I’m surprised it’s gotten to us, frankly.”

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