Very soon the village board will decide whether to approve the Oak Park Residence Corporation’s proposed mixed-income, net-zero-energy apartment project at 7 Van Buren St. The benefits of recent development to our village’s vitality, vibrancy, and tax base are undeniable. But 7 Van Buren is a different kind of project, one that would represent a triumph of Oak Park’s values in the development arena. This project embodies what Oak Park strives to be. The board should vote yes on this proposal.
Affordable. Sustainable. Accessible. Equitable. Pick your Oak Park value of choice: 7 Van Buren hits the mark on each of these in a way that few projects have or can, and does so in an Austin Boulevard location that has not seen such meaningful investment in at least 50 years. The building will produce as much energy as it consumes; will offer 20% of units as affordable, a standard that is considered best practice for positive economic integration; and will provide an elevator and senior-friendly level of accessibility — a combination of attributes that is, quite simply, an astonishing achievement for the Residence Corporation and for the village of Oak Park.
The 7 Van Buren building will be transit-oriented. Accessible to both the Austin Blue Line station and to multiple bus stops, the building will be marketed by the Residence Corporation to prospects who do not, or need not, own automobiles. The building will be an economic catalyst, bringing with it the potential for more investment and retail services to a gateway area that is ripe for that boost. And the building will be beautiful, bringing a modern and eco-friendly aesthetic to the eastern border of our village.
Is the 7 Van Buren building perfect? Of course not. Plan commissioners (who deserve heaps of praise for their thoughtful, thorough, and patient review of this proposal) expressed reservations with waste handling, right-of-way acquisition, building size, and the amount of on-site parking. But the building’s waste management plan is code-compliant; the acquisition of right-of-way is minor and not uncommon; and the building size is fully within the goals articulated in a 2003 “Character Plan” commissioned by the village for this and other commercial districts.
Yes, the amount of parking provided on-site is below what the village has approved in recent years. But the likelihood that a prospective renter in need of parking would still choose to rent in this building if all the indoor spaces and all nearby parking lots were completely full is not high. Sure, a few such renters may disagree and take their chances with street parking, but that number is likely to be in the single digits at best. In fact, if the Center for Neighborhood Technologies is correct that demand for parking in this building is likely to be around 15 spaces, the number of tenants looking for off-site spaces may, in fact, be zero.
The 7 Van Buren project is possible because the Oak Park Residence Corporation is a not-for-profit entity and is undeterred by a project that will not generate financial returns. The ambitious sustainability and affordability goals here preclude this development from being a viable private-sector project without significant public subsidy. As a result, there is no better Plan B waiting in the wings; not by the Residence Corporation, and certainly not in the private development market. And to be clear, there is no village subsidy here. This is the project to get behind.
The village board knows, the Plan Commission has stated, and I understand that this project isn’t perfect. But it is better than good. It is very, very good, and we should all be wary of holding this project to a standard that somehow eliminates every imperfection while still accomplishing everything this project does. That project doesn’t exist. This project does, and it is worthy of the board’s support.
John Lynch is executive director of the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation.