Those who have invested in the acquisition and development of the Oak Park Commons cohousing project gather at the site where they will live in the future. The project is slated to break ground next year. | Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer

This fall, the first intergenerational cohousing community in Illinois took big steps forward towards construction in Oak Park. Both the Oak Park Plan Commission and the Village Board of Trustees unanimously approved the development planned for Madison Street at Carpenter Avenue, and the building is on its way to breaking ground in 2023.

To date, the 24-unit building has eight owners with units already reserved and nine equity investors. Susan Stall, chair of the membership and marketing committee for Oak Park Commons development, says those investors have already committed $1.2 million of the building’s estimated $11.5 million cost.

It’s a process that began almost four years ago when a group of interested Oak Park residents gathered with the interest of trying to build an intergenerational cohousing development. Susan Stall and her husband Charlie Hoch were in that early group.  

What began as a few people interested in exploring the benefits of cohousing for young and older people turned into a group dedicated to creating a multifamily building with shared common spaces to foster social interaction in a building that promotes energy conservation and environmental sustainability. 

Oak Park resident Jonathan Shack and his wife were on board early in the process. The couple are lifelong Oak Parkers. A friend told them about the group in Oak Park, and Shack and his wife went to some meetings and decided it fit the bill for the kind of intentional living they were interested in. 

Rendering of the planned Oak Park Commons development at 839 Madison St., Oak Park. | FOSTER DALE ARCHITECTS

“Cohousing in general, and Oak Park Commons specifically, embodies what Oak Park used to be like,” Shack said. “It’s about neighbors gathering for social events, helping each other when they’re sick, giving rides to kids. It’s something you just don’t see anymore. For us, it’s getting back to what we grew up with in Oak Park.”

After getting involved on a personal level, Shack also jumped in on a professional level, and his building firm, Altierra, will be involved on the construction side.

This is his first time constructing a cohousing building, and he points out that there are a few differences between this and a typical multifamily development. 

“For a building this size, it’s not very common to have large common spaces like this will have,” Shack said. “There will be a large roof garden and deck, an exercise room, a lounge room with a fireplace and a communal kitchen and gathering space on the fifth floor.”

Stall notes that there are a few community expectations as well. Members will each volunteer 10 hours a month doing work that meets collective needs, which will reduce monthly assessments and promote community as members share the burdens of cooking, cleaning, managing and governing.

The 24-unit Oak Park Commons cohousing development will be built on this vacant southeast corner site at Madison Street and Carpenter Avenue in Oak Park. | GOOGLE MAPS

That kind of common goal was attractive to Marion Kuper, who with her husband Keith recently retired from farming in Iowa. The couple started looking at cohousing developments in California, where one of their twin daughters lives. 

They liked the idea but found the options there too expensive. Their other daughter lives in Chicago, and they stumbled across the Oak Park Commons website and decided to attend a meeting.

The couple was familiar with cooperative business concepts, having both been involved in food co-ops in the past, and they liked it as a business model. On a personal level, they were attracted to the concept, too. 

“They want to create something that’s intergenerational, with vibrancy and people of all ages,” Kuper said of Oak Park Commons. “All of these things are super appealing, so we had to get involved.”

She and her husband have put down a deposit on a unit and are excited about watching the building take shape. Kuper and another investor, Sunny Hall, are working together on the roof garden plan.

Those who are ready to commit to living in Oak Park Commons pay a refundable $5,000 fee to reserve the unit of their choice, and 5 percent of the unit price at the time of their purchase. The $5,000 can be folded into the 5-percent payment, and units start at $282,193. There are one-, two- and three-bedroom units available.

Longtime Oak Parkers Sheila Flaherty and her husband have also reserved a unit in the building. The two had read about cohousing efforts elsewhere in the country and were drawn in by the Oak Park Commons volunteer table at the Farmers Market. 

Flaherty admits to having some initial concerns about the cohousing model, as she values her privacy, but she says her more social husband was always on board. The two toured other cohousing developments, and she quickly realized that she could have some alone time while also engaging with people frequently, something she says is more and more appealing after a pandemic spent with little human contact.

At first, Flaherty felt the project was less concrete, but as the group has overcome many hurdles.

“We’ve done some big things. We’ve purchased the land, we passed the village planning commission and board, we’ve got signs up,” Flaherty said. “This is getting real.”

Shack says things are definitely gaining momentum, and receiving such unanimous praise from the village was a big boost. After receiving notes on their construction drawings, the group will finalize those before going back to the village for permits and hopes to be breaking ground in early spring 2023, with a possible delivery date of late spring 2024.

“Everyone in the group is really excited,” Shack said. “This will be a great addition to Madison Street. It’s really going to be thriving from both a business and residential standpoint.”

Oak Park Commons holds regular meetings via Zoom with some in-person gatherings as well for those interested in learning more about cohousing in Oak Park. Their next Zoom meeting is planned for Dec. 8. Anyone interested in learning more about the concept can visit their website: oakparkcohousing.org

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