The proposed seven-story residential complex at 203 S. Marion St. received differing feedback from the Oak Park Plan Commission during the project’s hearing Feb. 4. Commissioners’ reactions ran the gamut, with some commissioners having the direct opposite opinion as other members of the commission.
“We anticipate that this will take multiple meetings,” said Chair Iris Sims. “I don’t know if it will take two or three, but, at a minimum two.”
Focus Development has requested to build an 84-foot-10-inch apartment building on the Drechsler Brown & Williams funeral home property, located on the corner of Marion Street and Pleasant Street in the Oak Park-Ridgeland Historic District. Zoning code dictates a maximum height of 60 feet. As proposed, the building will have 159 rental units, including six two-story maisonette apartments on the ground floor.
The building will have 123 enclosed parking spaces and Focus has committed to providing electric car charging in 10 percent of the parking slots. Amenities include an outdoor terrace with pool, a dog spa, bike storage, fitness studio, work from home spaces and a coffee shop. Focus Development hired former Plan Commission chair David Mann, of Booth Hansen, as project architect.
Commissioner Tom Gallagher was pleased that Focus had scaled the project back ahead of its Plan Commission hearing but would have liked more apartments in the building.
“I wish we could have more units,” said Gallagher.
Other commissioners were still concerned about the mass, including Commissioner Nick Bridge, who thought the overall size “disruptive to the character of the area.”
Commissioner Jon Hale felt differently.
“I’ve seen very little evidence over the years that new and larger buildings detract from the overall feel of Oak Park,” said Hale.
Hale wanted to see the developers seek higher sustainability certification and wanted the developers to seek out a minority-owned business to operate the coffee shop.
Concerned about the “massiveness of that building in that area” and the limited green space, Commissioner Lawrence Brozek proposed eliminating the middle units.
Commissioner Jeff Clark agreed with Brozek, saying, “I was anticipating a taller building than the underlying zoning is; what I wasn’t anticipating is that there would be no green space.”
The lack of green space, Clark called, “disappointing.”
Clark suggested removing three of the maisonette units to make a public green space.
“I think the maisonette thing is a great idea,” said Commissioner Jeff Foster. “I know how hard it is to rent that retail space and I don’t think we want that retail space.”
For Clark, allowing first-floor units would necessitate considerably more compensating benefits than Focus is offering to offset the height increase and unit increase.
“First floor units aren’t even allowed in current zoning and would require a variance,” said Clark.
Compensating benefits, according to Focus, include resurfacing the alley at the west side of property, putting a green roof on the building, providing public art and the creation of five full-time jobs for property management staff.
“A lot of them aren’t really compensating benefits; they’re just part of building a new project,” Clark said of Focus’s compensating benefits.
Focus has also committed to working with non-profits to hire five Oak Park minority residents to participate in construction and receive construction job training. The development company intends to work with neighbors to create a car sharing program housed in the development as well.
In lieu of setting aside units to be leased at a lower rate, Focus will pay $1.25 million to the village of Oak Park’s affordable housing fund. Focus representative Courtney Bower said that, if built, the building will generate an additional $750,000 of property and sales tax annually.
Citing the small size of units, Gallagher said renters will not do much cooking, preferring to go to local restaurants.
Brozek felt otherwise, saying, “I don’t really see the compensating benefits besides the additional taxes.”
The financial benefits provided by the development outweighed concerns over the building’s design for Commissioner Paul Beckwith, who stated he was for the project “big time.”
“This is a great opportunity even though I’d like for it to be a better architecture building,” said Beckwith.
Commissioner Paul May, who didn’t mind the massing or scaling of the project, felt the architectural style appears “a bit corporate,” while Foster wanted Focus to consider using more “eclectic” surface treatments.
Sims worried that traffic from the building would negatively impact the safety of pedestrians.
“Common sense dictates that we need to be concerned about how the pedestrians are crossing that intersection down Marion Street and in between the Carleton [Hotel] and the development,” said Sims. “It makes absolutely zero sense to me that that wouldn’t be an all-way stop.”
The Plan Commission will resume the hearing for the proposal Feb. 18. Potential subsequent meetings regarding the Focus project have not yet been scheduled, however Beckwith felt proceedings should be delayed as little as possible, given the nearness of the April 6 municipal election.
“My concern too is how this is going to flow in light of the upcoming election,” said Beckwith. “The further we delay this, we’re going to have a new village board and I don’t know if they’re going to be as informed as the present one.”