The Oak Park Plan Commission recommended notable changes be made to broaden the village’s zoning ordinance in relation to retail-only restrictions and construction of new developments during its Oct. 27 meeting.

Per the recommendation of the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation (OPEDC), the Plan Commission agreed to make zoning less restrictive in downtown Oak Park and in the Hemingway District. 

“The alternative is vacant storefronts,” said Commissioner Jeff Foster.

In those two districts, current zoning requires buildings to maintain the front 50 feet of ground-level space for retail use. Traditional brick-and-mortar retail has suffered across the nation with the rise of online shopping and Oak Park has felt the change. According to OPEDC, the greater downtown area of Oak Park has 650,000 square feet of ground-level space, 14 percent of which stands vacant. 

“With the retail environment and the impacts of the pandemic, it really seems like we oughta loosen it up a bit,” said Commissioner Jon Hale, a former village trustee.

OPEDC’s recommendation constituted broadening the retail-only restriction to include art and fitness studios, health clubs, recreation and indoor activity providers, as well as business service centers, such as FedEx and Kinkos. Indoor activities may include bowling alleys and axe throwing.

Commissioner Paul Beckwith felt it unwise to inflict zoning constraints at all, given the nation’s current economic state.

“It’s going to be tough with any kind of restrictions right now,” he said.

In addition to broadening retail zoning, the Plan Commission is suggesting significant changes to the development process to allow developers more time to submit building permits and have no designated timeframe to begin construction.

Currently, the village has a three-pronged approach for beginning the construction phase of new developments. First, developers are required to submit building permits within nine months from the date village board approved a planned development application. Secondly, developers must begin construction with 18 months of village board approval and finally, the construction must be completed within 36 months from the date of village board approval.

OPEDC brought forth the idea of modifying the timeline and included recommendations on how to do so, which village staff supported. OPEDC recommended eliminating the nine-month window to submit a building permit and extending the construction start date from 18 months to 24 months. OPEDC also recommended eliminating the end of construction milestone for 36 months to a timeframe established by the developer and agreed upon by the Plan Commission.

Taking commission member Jeff Foster’s suggestion, the Plan Commission voted unanimously to recommend amending the zoning ordinance to allow contractors one year to submit building permit applications and no more than 36 months to complete construction; the amended ordinance also eliminates the mandated timeframe to begin construction.

The recommended amendments to retail zoning and the development process will go to the village board for approval, giving the village board final say in whether or not they will be enacted.

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