The Oak Park village board voted 6-1 to approve construction of a 5-story, 42-unit  apartment complex at 435 to 451 Madison St. during an Aug. 3 meeting, despite an earlier unanimous plan commission recommendation against the project and heavy opposition from neighbors who live in the abutting Gunderson Historic District.

“This has been an arduous journey, but I think at the end of the day, we’ve ended up with a very good project that the neighbors will hopefully, ultimately embrace,” said Tom Meador, president and CEO of developer Michigan Avenue Real Estate Group (MAREG).

Prior to the proposal coming to the village board, the Oak Park plan commission directed MAREG to make significant redesigns to address community and commission concerns regarding the apartment complex’s mass and height. The redesign brought back to the commission was criticized for being insubstantial, leading the plan commission to decline to give it a positive endorsement.

“The massing of the proposed structure is too large, too tall and too close to residential properties and a residential neighborhood to the South and East,” the plan commission wrote in its report to the village board.

As the project already had a series of public hearings in the plan commission stage, the number of public comments at the village board meeting was limited to five on each side. The board read five against the project but only one in favor which was submitted by the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation, which the board opted not to read.

MAREG made further redesigns to the complex’s design prior to its village board vote that were not subject to formal plan commission review. While the 63-foot height of the building remained the same, MAREG lowered its original plan of 48 units to 42. The new plan also made revisions to the building’s setback.

“It’s a different building than what we looked at,” said David Mann, plan commission chair, who was present at the Aug. 3 board meeting.

The area’s zoning dictates a maximum building height of 50 feet and a maximum density of 24 living units, but the village board’s approval allows MAREG these zoning variances. Mann said he did like some of the revisions that MAREG made, but the plan commission’s main concern, the building’s height, remained the same

“This building would not work economically if it were a four-story building,” said Meador. The fixed costs of the building are countered by rent revenue generated from more living units.

Due to Mann’s comment, Trustee Simone Boutet motioned, with the support of Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla, to send the revised proposal back to the plan commission. The motion failed 5-2.

As a public benefit, MAREG will contribute an additional $50,000 to the village’s affordable housing fund on top of the $500,000 it had already opted to pay under the inclusionary housing ordinance.

“We’re in favor of affordable housing,” Meador told the board.

Walker-Peddakotla had concerns about MAREG’s union disputes over development projects in Forest Park and Evanston.

“We’ve had some issues with some unions who have not been awarded the business and they were disgruntled and frankly got very aggressive with their tactics – disrupted our tenants downtown, abused a couple of our staff,” said Meador, adding that MAREG filed a claim with the National Labor Relations Board.

According to Meador, MAREG is not against working with unions and its projects are generally 30 to 40 percent staffed by union labor.

“We put our projects out to anybody who wants to bid. At the end of the day it comes down to competency and cost,” said Meador.

Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb voiced his support for MAREG and the project, saying the company had expressed interest in developing along the Madison corridor four or five years ago.

“They kept coming back to Oak Park because they believe in the community,” Abu-Taleb said. “I don’t know how we can say no to them.”

The mayor admitted it was not a perfect project, but that no projects are. The benefits to the village outweigh the project’s negatives, Abu-Taleb said, and the village needs to generate money to spend money on social services and other community needs.

“I’m not in love with buildings; I’m in love with having great economic development in our community,” said Abu-Taleb.

The board approved the development proposal 6-1. Walker-Peddakotla voted against the project because of its lack of plan commission endorsement.

“Bringing these reasonably priced rental units into our community into what is now a blighted stretch of Madison Street is exactly what we need to be doing in Oak Park,” said Trustee Jim Taglia, after the vote. “If you care about affordable housing, you really need to support these projects otherwise we’re out of money for the fund.” 

 This article was edited to fix a typo..

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