Building Rendering of the proposed seven-story residential complex at 203 S. Marion St. (Rendering by Focus Development)

Where people once went to grieve before laying loved ones to rest, others soon will be able to move on up into a deluxe apartment in the sky. The plans to build an apartment complex at 203 Marion St., the site of Drechsler, Brown & Williams funeral home, received construction approval from the Oak Park village board March 15.

Proposed by Focus, a large developer, the 158-unit building will have a swimming pool and a dog-run, as well as private co-working spaces, 123 parking spots and a small coffee shop.

The Plan Commission met three times with Focus representatives, who made various changes to the design plan, before granting the project its approval March 4. Three commissioners voted against the project. 

At the Plan Commission’s behest, Focus has committed to finding a minority-owned proprietor to run the coffee shop. According to Courtney Brower of Focus, the company has had talks with Forest Park’s Kribi Coffee Air Roasters owner Jacques Shalo to serve as proprietor. 

“There is mutual interest to bring Kribi Coffee to 203 S. Marion,” said Brower.

Focus will pay $1.58 million into the village’s affordable housing fund, per the inclusionary housing ordinance, in lieu of setting aside units to be let at a lesser rate – a disappointment for Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla, who voted against the project.

“I have nothing against high-density development. I actually think we should be promoting these things,” she said. “I just want in-unit affordable housing.” 

Monthly rental rates for apartments in the building range from about $1,500 for studio units up to about $5,500 for the five two-story maisonette units. 

While the village board received 45 public comments opposing the building for such reasons as the building’s impact on traffic and its 84-foot-10-inch height, only four comments were submitted in its favor, including one by Wild Onion Tied House owner Mike Kainz. Wild Onion is on South Blvd., a block north of the project.

Trustee Dan Moroney referenced Kainz’s comment that the project would bring more customers to local establishments, stating, “I think it’s a great way to support small businesses.”

Moroney, who noted the building was one or two stories higher than he would have preferred, thanked Focus for its investment in Oak Park during a time of economic uncertainty.

“I will be voting yes on it,” said Moroney.

Trustee Susan Buchanan, who is the board’s Plan Commission liaison, said she attended all of the project’s meetings with the commission, listing the changes Focus made to the project as a result of those meetings. Changes include increased sustainability features and green space, reconfigured parking and the elimination of one maisonette.

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While stating she understood why some could be opposed to the project, Buchanan told the board she had spoken with an affordable housing developer who “voiced a preference for in lieu fees” over designated affordable units. 

“It’s really difficult to develop units within buildings,” said Buchanan. “I’m thrilled with the $1.5 million. We can support rent for people in that neighborhood to make sure they can live in that neighborhood.”

Trustee Simone Boutet was also pleased with the contribution to the affordable housing fund but felt the building “overwhelmed” the historic neighborhood.

“I can’t get rid of my vision for this neighborhood, which is not to have downtown expand further up,” said Boutet, who voted against the proposal with a “very mixed mind.”

With the lending community not actively taking risks at the moment, according to Focus’s Justin Pelej, Trustee Deno Andrews suggested extending the timeframe to file a building permit for the project.

“Any consideration for an extension, I think, would be appreciated,” said Pelej.

 Pelej anticipated that lenders would resume normal operations this summer after receiving COVID-19 vaccinations.    

“I thank you for continuing to pursue this opportunity during one of the worst years that I can remember,” said Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb.

He and Trustee Jim Taglia supported giving Focus more time to file permits. 

In a 5-2 vote, the village board approved the Focus project for construction and stretched the building permit filing timeline for the approved building from 12 months to 24 months. Focus also received an extension on their certificate of appropriateness to demolish the funeral home so as to be coterminous with the building permit timing. The vote marks one of the current board’s last before three new trustees and a new village president, also called mayor, take office.

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