Oak Park Residence Corporation, a nonprofit community development organization whose mission is to promote Oak Park as a diverse and economically balanced community by providing high-quality multifamily rental housing at reasonable rates for households of all income levels, has big plans for the mid-century, multifamily building it owns at 7 Van Buren St. 

OPRC plans to raze the building and erect a new six-story building in its place. 

“It was getting to the point where we either needed to invest in it significantly or replace it,” said David Pope, OPRC president and CEO.

In making the decision to replace the modest 12-unit building with something else, he says that there were six primary arguments against new development in Oak Park that guided the thinking on the new building. 

These arguments include: Why does every building have to be tall? There aren’t enough affordable units. The only accessible units are in downtown Oak Park. Why does all new development in Oak Park only happen downtown? What about environmental sustainability? Why can’t we build buildings that are beautiful?

Pope says the proposed building will answer those questions and break new ground in Oak Park.

At six stories, the proposed building is taller than the existing building but is no high-rise. Of its 44 units, 20% will be set aside as affordable housing. The building will be accessible, with an elevator.

Pope calls the project “the first significant investment, from a residential standpoint, on Austin in over 50 years.”

“It might really signal to others that you can invest in this area of Oak Park,” he added.

The development team, which includes design architect Kahler Slater and mechanical engineering group dbHMS, is also aiming high in terms of environmental sustainability and brought in Oak Parker Tom Bassett-Dilley, an architect and expert on passive house design, to help raise the bar. 

Passive house techniques use passive influences in a building – like sunshine, shading and ventilation – instead of systems such as air conditioning and central heating. Combining these techniques with very high levels of insulation and airtightness, makes it possible for a passive home to use 90 percent less energy than a typical dwelling.

The proposed building for 7 Van Buren St. will follow passive house techniques, but also aims even higher to create a net-zero building, which means the total amount of energy used by the building on an annual basis will be roughly equal to the amount of renewable energy created on the site.

Pope says this development is a game changer.

“Anyone in the Midwest involved in this area would be interested to learn what we’re doing and how,” Pope said. “We’d make all of that information public in order to change the way people think about multifamily housing. It would be a real catalyst.”

Bassett-Dilley says he’s very excited to be involved in the project, which will most likely be one of the largest, if not the largest, net-zero multifamily developments in the Midwest. 

He emphasizes that passive house construction methods have proven to be cost-competitive with built-to-code methods, and says he hopes this building will show other developers what can be done.

“You’re just asking yourself, ‘Why the heck wouldn’t people do this?’” Bassett-Dilley said.

In order to push the project beyond passive house to net-zero standards, Bassett-Dilley says his team modelled different applications of glass, walls and shading. Walls of glass might look great, but they require large systems for heating and cooling and lots of energy to keep warm in winter and cool in summer. Fine-tuning building components will allow the building to produce all of its own energy.

Solar panels will wrap around the south side of the building, and Bassett-Dilley calls having onsite renewables such as these a “big deal.”

On top of the sustainable focus of the project, Pope says he has another commitment to the neighborhood. 

“If it’s not a beautiful building, we won’t build it,” Pope said.

The design requires a zoning variance. The lot is zoned for four stories and the building design also extends over the current sidewalk, but Pope says the design is done in a thoughtful way he thinks will appeal to neighbors and residents.

A colonnade will extend along the Van Buren side, visually connecting Oak Park to Columbus Park in Austin. A roof deck will offer views of the park and the city.

“We hope this is a way to foster a linkage and bring Oak Parkers and Austinites together in this jewel of a park,” Pope said.

For Bassett-Dilley, who sits on Oak Park’s Ad-Hoc Climate Action Plan Committee, this building represents the future of design.

He says his office is getting more and more calls for people interested in building passive houses.

“People realize that it makes sense, it’s proven,” Bassett-Dilley said. “It’s about time it gets through to the multifamily buildings now.”

He hopes the climate action committee looks at this building as way to start a conversation about incentivizing more developers in Oak Park to build with similar techniques.

“You have to have faith that people will be interested,” Bassett-Dilley said. “We’re talking about a threat to our existence. Are you willing to give up a little glass for that?”

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