The Oak Park Plan Commission got a crack at the plans to build a net-zero, accessible and affordable housing complex at 7 Van Buren Street during the project’s hearing Oct. 7. Aside from commending the Oak Park Residence Corporation for making the building net-zero, they gave little indication of whether they intend to recommend the village board approve the project for construction.
The plan for the six-story, 45-unit complex was presented to the commission by David Pope, currently ResCorp executive director, and previously Oak Park village president, village trustee and plan commission member.
RecCorp has long owned the site which is currently occupied by a two-story motel-style apartment building. ResCorp is a local non-profit which partners with other local agencies including the village of Oak Park and focuses on diversity in apartment housing in Oak Park.
As planned, the proposed building requires seven zoning allowances, including in height from the maximum 45 feet permitted by village code to 71.85 feet and a decrease in parking spaces provided from 34 slots, as required by village code, to 17. OPRC has also petitioned the village for permission to vacate a portion of Van Buren Street right-of-way abutting the property at a length of 122.5 feet and 15-feet wide.
In accordance with the village of Oak Park’s inclusionary housing ordinance, ResCorp intends to let 20 percent of the building’s units to families of low income. Sustainability has been prioritized; as designed, the building will be net-zero equipped with solar panels. ResCorp received a $2 million grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation to fund construction.
Commissioner Lawrence Brozek, wanted to know if the solar panels, right now set for placement at 15 feet above the roof, could be put on the roof itself, as well as if some of the parking could be put below grade.
However, Pope said lowering the solar array would create a detrimental shadow effect.
“You end up in a situation where you can’t actually generate the level of solar energy that’s necessary to be able to achieve the thresholds that are required to get to net-zero,” he said.
Project architect Charles Swanson hopped in to tell the commission they had suggested moving the solar panels down and vetted the idea “thoroughly” before ultimately deciding it was “unfortunately not viable.”
As for moving some parking below grade, Swanson said due to the size of the site, it is difficult to ramp down and within the building.
“To accommodate the ramp on the site coming in from the alley, you’d be losing additional parking spaces,” Swanson said.
Commissioner Jeff Clark also was curious about the building’s parking situation. He asked if ResCorp could bring back a more detailed plan for the first floor to see if the lobby’s size could be decreased to add more parking spaces.
Swanson called it a “terrific question,” before explaining that the first floor lobby on the northeast corner is already on the smaller side and the common amenity spaces were moved to the second floor to allow for parking.
“We’ve gotten about as much parking on the first floor as we can,” he said.
Clark asked that Pope consider putting a condition in the tenant rental agreements that prohibit tenants from applying for overnight street parking, which Pope said he was willing to consider.
Despite the drawback of reduced parking, ResCorp made accessibility a priority in designing the building. The plans include an elevator, which will allow residents to age in place, and all common areas will be fully accessible, according to Pope, while still ensuring the building is both beautiful and contextual to its neighborhood. Based on the building’s proposed location, Pope told the commission that its construction poses an opportunity to bridge the communities of Oak Park and Austin.
Commissioner Nick Bridge was curious if the floor heights could be lowered slightly to bring the building’s overall height down, which he also thought would help to decrease the cost of building materials.
Pope told Bridge that doing so was not viable for “a number of reasons,” but did not share any of those reasons.
“Right now, the floor heights are really where they need to be for the functionality of the building,” said Pope.
Iris Sims felt ResCorp and its architects needed to address the building’s lack of fresh air, citing COVID-19. The chair said she had been following COVID-19 “every day for the last two years” and looking at data from “experts from all over the world.”
Sims could not have been following the virus every day for two years as the first COVID-19 outbreak happened in China Dec. 31 of 2019.
“With an airtight building that doesn’t have fresh air, the question becomes: How are you going to purify it?” Sims asked.
Purification will occur through the building’s energy recovery ventilator, the sole purpose of which is to bring fresh air into units and extract exhaust air out, according to project manager Denny Burke of Tom Bassett-Dilley Architects.
Wanting to hear first from the public, Commissioners Jeff Foster and Jon Hale opted to save their questions until the next meeting, while Commissioner Paul May shared concerns over the building’s massing and thought the structure itself “a bit blocky and ominous.”
“I would suggest there be some consideration to taking off the top living level,” said May. “And stepping it back and giving those units a terrace rather than a balcony.”
He suggested stepping that floor back by about seven feet. He also proposed stepping back the level holding up the solar photovoltaic panels. May asked that ResCorp look into moving some of the panels onto the roofs of surrounding buildings.
Pope said the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation grant requires recipients to place the panels on the building itself, not others nearby. Moving them offsite would result in OPRC losing the funding for the building.
Due to time, the public comment and cross examination periods for the project were postponed until the next commission meeting, scheduled for Nov. 4.