On the 300 block of South Home Avenue in Oak Park, the COVID-19 pandemic delayed but didn’t end a heated debate over proposed new development and increased density in Oak Park’s Ridgeland Historic District.
The controversy centers on two lots — 327 S. Home Ave., site of a former single-family home long ago converted to four rental units, and, 329 S. Home Ave., which is vacant green space.
For many neighbors, the first hint that the area was the site of a proposed 16-unit development came in March when a village sign announced public hearings on the developer’s request for a zoning change.
The property sold in August 2019 for $785,000, to Mazola Home Ave. LLC, a development company managed by Claudia Mazola, a real estate broker affiliated with New West Realty in Chicago, which is managed by former Chicago Alderman Ted Mazola.
River Forest architect John Schiess is designing the project. Schiess has been involved with many local developments, including the Oasis townhouse project on Chestnut Lane, located behind the proposed Home Avenue development.
Now though the tensions are not just between neighbors and the developers. Instead Ted Mazola said Monday that Schiess had “misrepresented” what current zoning allows to be built. In an R5 district only a two-flat can be constructed. The original plan developed with Schiess called for 16 units plus the renovated four-flat next door.
Mazola, who said he has always wanted to meet directly with neighbors, said he would plan a meeting and “listen to their concerns.” He said he understands the size of any project will now be notably reduced but that he would ask neighbors to support “building something more than a deuce (two-flat).”
Original plans for the vacant parcel of land called for an L-shaped building that would wrap around the rear of the existing building at 327 S. Home Ave. The combined total number of units in the two buildings, 16, exceeded the current zoning allotment, which necessitated a public hearing and Oak Park Plan Commission approval.
Craig Failor, Oak Park’s village planner, says the Plan Commission’s April 2 hearing had to be cancelled due to the pandemic, and says the village is awaiting guidance from the governor on when and how to resume public meetings.
According to Failor, the developer had sought a zoning map amendment, not a variance. Currently 327 and 329 S. Home Ave., like the rest of the homes to the north and east on the block, are zoned R5, or two-family.
The four-unit apartment building at 327 S. Home Ave. was grandfathered in. To the south, is a multi-unit condominium building, zoned R7, the highest class of multifamily. The developers sought to change the zoning for the lots to R6, on the lower end of multifamily zoning, which would allow their development to accommodate the proposed 16 units.
In addition to the new L-shaped building, plans called for the existing four-unit building to be altered, including adding a front porch and two front dormers, so the architectural styles of the two buildings matched.
And after getting pushback on the proposal during a meeting of the Historic Preservation Commission on June 17, developers are considering changing direction, though Schiess said all options remained on the table.
Earlier this month, Schiess told Wednesday Journal that he wanted to work within existing zoning and advocated for a smaller development, an eight-unit building, at 329 S. Home Ave.
However, after acknowledging that the existing zoning designation of R5 prohibits any dwelling larger than two units, Schiess said, “My recommendation to the developers is to work with the neighbors. It’s not my call. I laid out all of the options and the developers will decide.”
Prior to the June 17 meeting, the Historic Preservation Commission received one letter signed by 35 neighbors and 18 other letters in opposition to the initial proposal.
After the meeting, neighbors mounted an opposition campaign via their Facebook page Preserve Home Avenue and a petition on Change.org. Many of those opposed say that they are not anti-development but that they are against a development of this size in an historic district.
Heinz Schuler, who has lived in his 1890s-era home on the block for 13 years, is one of those neighbors opposed to the project. He states that he is not anti-development and would welcome a scale-appropriate two-flat on the vacant lot, but he believes that the proposed project is too large for the street.
“It’s not in the character of the homes on the block. It’s massive,” Schuler said. “We’re looking at 16 units on two residential lots. It’s nothing like any of the homes we have on the street.”
Schuler also believes that granting the zoning amendment would set a bad precedent. “The argument from the developer is that this could create transitional zoning,” Schuler said. “If they do that here, what’s to stop it from happening in other areas in the village? If the village values the historic districts, to allow developers to chip away at that is concerning.”
Neighbor Charles Watkins, who lives directly across the street from the proposed development is also opposed.
“I think everybody is opposed to it as far as I know,” Watkins said. “People are up in arms, and I think justifiably so.”
He also cited the developer’s lack of ties to the Oak Park area, stating, “It strikes me as a cash-grab kind of development. It’s purely money-driven.”
Watkins, along with Schuler, also points to the 2014 Envision Oak Park Comprehensive Plan, which was meant to inform land-use decisions in the village. Among other things, that plan states that “village government should ensure that historic development is properly preserved, and new development appropriately complements the existing character of the community.”
The Historic Preservation Commission is involved in the process, said Susie Trexler, historic preservation urban planner for the village, because the commission is tasked with “consider[ing] the long-term compatibility of the proposed zoning action” with other structures within a given historic district.
In addition, the commission applies the village’s Architectural Review Guidelines in discussing proposed new buildings’ design.
At the June 17 meeting, historic preservation commissioners voiced their opposition to the proposed zoning changes.
Commissioners also considered the proposed design, discussing the streetscape, the size and scale of the proposed building, the style, the roof design, the external walkway and whether it is appropriate to attach the new building to the rear of the historic building at 327 Home Ave.
Many of the commissioners expressed concerns about the new building abutting the existing condominiums next door, as well as extending the front setback 25 feet closer to the street than 327 S. Home Ave. and neighboring houses.
At the meeting, Schiess pointed out that the size of the proposal met current site setback requirements and argued that the streetscape remained the same.
Interviewed after the virtual meeting, Schiess says he and the development team contend that a transitional zoning classification of R6 makes sense. He added that the project’s design complements the historic neighborhood.
“Out of the gate, I thought this was a really good fit,” Schiess said.