In its second audience before the Oak Park Plan Commission, the development group Focus revealed several design revisions made to the seven-story apartment complex proposed for 203 S. Marion St., the Drechsler Brown & Williams funeral home property. While the modifications were widely applauded by commissioners, several believed the structure’s height would dwarf its surroundings.
“I appreciate the efforts the architect did to increase the enhancement of the building, but there’s no doubt it’s just way too tall,” Commissioner Lawrence Brozek said during the Feb. 18 meeting.
For many, the building’s 84-foot-10-inch height overshadowed the revisions made, which were based on comments from commissioners given during the project’s first date with the commission on Feb. 4.
The revisions include adding masonry detailing echoing design features of neighboring structures, as well as a commitment from Focus to rebuild the alley adjacent to the property and to pay the village $60,000 to repave the remainder of the alley from the development property south to Randolph Street.
Under the revised plan, the building will achieve higher sustainability accreditation, qualifying it for National Green Building Standard (NGBS) Silver certification as opposed to Bronze as previously presented. While the original plan had six maisonette units, Focus eliminated one maisonette and reconfigured two others to create accessible greenspace on Marion Street. The removal of one maisonette brings the proposed building’s unit count to 158.
“I applaud the developers for making these changes,” said Commissioner Paul Beckwith, who was particularly pleased with the boost in NGBS classification and stated his support for the project.
Beckwith, however, wanted the structure’s stature reduced, citing height as the main concern expressed by residents in letters sent to the commission. According to Beckwith, 27 letters were received and at least 20 letters mentioned height.
“The only thing I can come up with on size is going down one level. I’ve been trying to call people to find out how much that costs,” Beckwith said. “I’m just curious, is that even something we could talk about?”
Beckwith encouraged the developers to consider bringing the height down, while stating he understood it may prove an infeasible undertaking.
“I’m trying to listen to the people of the neighborhood,” said Beckwith.
Constructing underground parking as a means to lessen overall height, according to Focus representative Justin Pelej, would be both costly and noisy, making it a disruptive endeavor to neighbors.
Commissioner Jon Hale, who did not find the complex too tall, asked the developer to commit to finding a Black-owned business or operator for the coffee shop, which will occupy a small portion of the building. Pelej agreed to do so.
The desires of others were not as easily answered for Focus, as multiple public commenters stated objections with the building’s height and the added traffic of having new residents in the area.
Village Engineer Bill McKenna, however, told commissioners that studies were conducted, and it was determined that the apartment complex would not pose a major impact to traffic. Historic Preservation Commission member Rebecca Houze, speaking as a private citizen and design historian, said Oak Park had a responsibility to protect the village’s architectural legacy, noting that people travel from all over to visit Unity Temple.
“Oak Park is not just a pleasant, leafy, well-heeled Chicago suburb; it has global significance,” said Houze, who called the Focus project, which did not receive HPC approval, out of character with its spatial context, referring to the site as delicate and modest.
“We should ask ourselves, ‘What kind of monument to wealth, and to whose wealth, will this new building be?’” Houze said.
Not all public comments were unfavorable to the project. Several business owners submitted letters in support of the project, including Carnivore Oak Park’s Brad Knaub and Andrew Palomo of Pillar Financial Advisors LLC.
Commissioner Nick Bridge echoed Houze’s sentiments, saying, “Personally I think this is one of the most charming streetscapes in Oak Park. It deserves protection.”
Bridge called the new detailing and landscaping helpful but felt they did not do enough to assuage his concerns about the building’s height and massing.
“I have a big problem with that,” said Bridge.
Commissioner Jeff Clark also considered height a major problem and reiterated the previously stated wish that Focus build underground spots.
“Rather than lopping off the top of the building and eliminating a bunch of units, this concept keeps the count of units and lowers the height of the building by a whole floor.”
Clark conceded that doing so would cost more money.
“But that’s where parking belongs when you have a height limitation,” he said.