The building at 156 N. Oak Park Ave. (above) was built as Oak Park’s first YMCA, but has since been converted into a condo building whose residents are dedicated to implementing sustainable practices. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

When 156 N. Oak Park Ave. was built in 1903 as a YMCA, it was a hub of the growing village. The state’s first Sweet 16 basketball tournament was hosted on its basketball court, and hundreds of villagers swam in its indoor swimming pool. 

In the early 1990s, the brick building was converted to condominiums. Today, the 28-unit building remains at the center of village life geographically, but with a decidedly more residential spin. 

Resident Elaine Johnson and her husband moved to the building in 2018 after over 20 years living in a house in south Oak Park. At the time of their move, the building’s green roof, which sits atop its underground parking garage was leaking and a special assessment was required to rebuild it. Johnson appreciated that the building’s landscape committee was very active, but she noted a lack of an environmental committee. 

When the condo board created the position of green coordinator, Johnson volunteered and recruited a team to help bring the building into the 21st century. Through small changes, the group is working to make the building’s carbon footprint lighter and hopes to connect with other local condo boards to collaborate on good strategies.

After years in a house, Johnson quickly learned that it can be more difficult to establish green practices in a multi-unit building. For instance, Waste Management only offers recycling services to buildings with five or fewer units, so their building had to look elsewhere for recycling collection.

Condo resident Janet Clough moved to Oak Park from New Jersey about two years ago to be nearer to her family, and joined the green committee with an early focus on the rooms on each floor housing recycling bins and garbage chutes. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic was just beginning, her early role was to sanitize the door knobs on the entries to the garbage and recycling rooms so residents would feel comfortable using the common spaces during the early days of the pandemic when no one was sure how the disease spread. 

“From there, we moved to a committee that was focused on things beyond just recycling,” Clough said.

The group began putting out a newsletter called the Green Scene. The newsletter comes out quarterly, and publication tends to coincide with dates like Earth Day or the autumn solstice. One paper copy is available in the mail room, but the newsletter is also emailed to residents to avoid paper waste.

The group also tackled the lighting in the building’s common spaces. 

“Now, approximately 90 percent of the lighting in the common areas is LED, and it’s already saved us money,” Johnson said. “Even our Christmas lights are LED.”

After much research, the building made the switch to community solar, since installing solar panels on the building was cost prohibitive. 

“Companies put solar panels on farm land,” Johnson said, explaining the community solar concept. “The energy goes into a ‘pot.’ You may not be getting that solar power through your wires, but you’re paying for it. The farmers benefit, and it’s all delivered to your building by ComEd.”

The green committee also organized a few special events, including a paint recycling day, electronics recycling event and a long-term plastic bag recycling project.

Chris Worny, who serves on the building’s landscape committee and has lived in the building for 24 years, found joining the green committee a natural step. She was already trying to consider the environment when choosing native pollinators such as milkweed for the building’s garden.

Now she says, the committee is looking to tackle some larger projects. 

“We’re trying to figure out how to get charging stations into our garage to encourage people to invest in electric vehicles,” Worny said. “The problem is, our building is quite old and the parking garage is underground. Spaces are narrow, so we don’t have a lot of extra space down there.”

Johnson says another challenge is composting. While residents have expressed an interest, the local residential compost pickup program does not serve larger buildings. 

“Right now, the village has one place to drop off compost near the pump station,” Johnson said.

She is currently taking her compost to a family member’s house, and says the committee is looking into how to make small changes like this more accessible for residents. 

To that end, Johnson encourages other condo boards to who have green committees or who are thinking of forming them to reach out. 

“We’d like to find other condos that have committees like ours,” Johnson said. “We could share our resources and tackle these issues together.”

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