Proposed new development at 7 Van Buren St. on Austin Boulevard. | Provided by Oak Park Residence Corporation

The Oak Park Residence Corporation sailed through the final stage in the village’s development process, receiving unanimous support from the village board to build a solar-powered and affordable apartment complex at 7 Van Buren St. The structure will be the “most significant net-zero multi-family building in the upper Midwest,” according to OPRC executive director and former village president David Pope.

OPRC’s commitment to affordability and sustainability secured the village board’s approval at the Jan. 18 meeting. Trustee Chibuike Enyia called the work put into the project “commendable,” noting the continuing and rapid deterioration of the planet’s condition.

“It’s becoming scarier and scarier to see what is going on with global warming and how our environment is changing around us so quickly,” he said.

The new project will replace a two-story mid-century apartment building which is also owned by OPRC. The building is already vacant.

Not everyone was as thrilled with the plans as the village board, however. The project garnered particularly high interest from the community. Trustee Jim Taglia said the board had received “probably a couple hundred” emails from people in favor of the project or against with “almost none in between.”

Public comments at the meeting were decidedly polarized as well, although only five were read per side. Residents were either staunchly supportive or unambiguously opposed. Those in opposition decried the project’s lack of adequate onsite parking; OPRC received zoning relief to decrease the number of parking spots required of a structure of that scale from 34 spots to only 17. Height was likewise a concern. The structure will stand just under 72 feet, having secured further relief to build higher than the zoning code’s maximum of 45 feet. Opposing commenters shared anxiety that the OPRC structure would overshadow the historic Poley multi-family building just to the south at 408 S. Austin Blvd., although the Historic Preservation Commission signed off on the project.

Those in favor of the project praised OPRC for its efforts to make the building sustainable, as well for investing in an underdeveloped part of town. OPRC has also promised to make rent affordable; the non-profit development organization makes 20 percent of the units in all of its buildings affordable to individuals at 50 percent area median income or below, according to Pope. Athena Williams, executive director of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, was among the project’s supporters.

The project narrowly received the endorsement of the Plan Commission, which recently voted 5-3 in OPRC’s favor with one commissioner absent. The vote was tense; a tie would have resulted in a negative recommendation to the village board. The decision came down to Plan Commission Chair Iris Sims, who cast the final affirmative vote.

Sims told the board it was “one of the most thorough reviews” the commission had done in her time as a member. The commission discussed the project over the course of four meetings and had “kicked the tires” painstakingly, especially in respect to parking.

While the board made an effort to politely recognize the apprehensions of those in opposition, each member was firmly in favor of the project. Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla, who has voted against several development proposals during her term, was won over by the project.

“I wish we see more developments like this in the future,” she said.

The village board also passed a companion ordinance allowing for the vacation of a portion of the village-owned parkway adjacent to Van Buren Street between Austin Boulevard and the north-south alley to the west of 7 Van Buren St.

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