It was troubling to watch the Oak Park Village Board discuss the proposed apartment building at 435 Madison St. last week. Trustees seemed confused about the details of the proposal and the changes made since the Plan Commission unanimously rejected it in March. The meeting hit its low point when the developer showed an inaccurate rendering of what could be built according to zoning, and trustees didn’t know enough to question its accuracy.

Such confusion is an advertisement for listening to citizen commissions, who are deeply familiar with the details, arguments, and counter-arguments of each issue. If the board had sent this proposal back to the Plan Commission, they would have gotten accurate information and made an informed decision. The vote might have been the same (it passed), but the standards for governance would have been much higher, and that’s what matters in the long haul.

Developers controlled the floor and the narrative, touting their recent changes to the southern setback as an adequate response to the Plan Commission’s findings. That setback is an improvement, but it addressed only one of four problems the Plan Commission had identified. (The others were height, density, and the proximity to properties to the east.) Trustees were either unaware of these other concerns or unwilling to question the developer’s assertions.

The debate about this project should have focused on whether it meets the standards for Planned Developments as laid out in the Zoning Ordinance. But there was zero discussion of those standards, much less their purposes, benefits, and limits. Instead, trustees discussed their own, subjective standards for new development and asked the developer non-questions like, “So how you are going to be a good neighbor?” (Anan), and “Does it really have to be this big to be financially feasible?” (Deno).

Bizarrely, the board discussion then turned toward affordable housing in Oak Park — bizarre because these are luxury apartments with no affordable units. Neighbors had advocated for the inclusion of affordable units, instead of the in-lieu payment allowed by Oak Park’s new Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance, but the developer opted for the in-lieu payment. That didn’t stop the developer from stating, “We’re in favor of affordable housing.” Huh?

The developer did offer a $50,000 “voluntary” contribution to the Affordable Housing Fund, a concession made after the Plan Commission said they needed to provide a compensating public benefit for the four zoning variances requested. While welcome, the monetary contribution seems less a commitment to affordable housing and more a desperate attempt to claim a public benefit for this building.

The telling moment came when several trustees agreed that residents’ concerns were really just NIMBY arguments dressed up in the language of the zoning ordinance. It was a rare moment of unity on this board, but one gained by throwing all nuance under the bus. Neighbors in this case advocated for increased environmental standards and improved pedestrian safety on Madison, and did I mention we fought for on-site affordable housing? Pretty community-minded for a bunch of NIMBYs!

Development is a wonky arena of governance, but residents should expect public officials to engage its complicated details and to ask good questions at the board table. I am disappointed this building was approved, but I’m even more disappointed by the board’s apathy toward due diligence. 

Sloppy processes beget sloppy results.

 is a 14-year resident of Oak Park and a 9-year resident of the Gunderson Historic District, which borders this development.

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