About 140 Oak Park residents showed up to Dole Library last Thursday evening in one of the largest public meetings Oak Park has seen in recent years. Not there to check out books or renew library cards, the considerable crowd assembled to hear plans for a new apartment complex at Chicago Avenue and Ridgeland in the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District. And the attendees weren’t shy with their feedback for the developer.
“There were a lot of, let’s say, comments that weren’t favorable,” said developer Tim Pomaville, owner of Ambrosia Homes Development.
Pomaville says he is listening to the public’s negative response to the proposed five-story, 36-unit building at 505 N. Ridgeland Ave. He told Wednesday Journal he is already working with his firm’s architects to tweak the proposal.
“It’s really up to us to try to do something to address the concern,” said Pomaville.
It’s only been a matter of days since the meeting, so Pomaville was unable to share what potential changes might be made to the plans based on what was expressed during the public meeting, a unique step required of developers by the village.
“I wrote down as many comments as I could,” Pomaville said.
Pomaville’s confessed respect for the public’s views is a stark contrast to the attitudes of other developers. In recent history, the relationship between developers and Oak Park residents could be characterized as adversarial. This was no more apparent than in the spring of 2020, when a five-story complex at 435 Madison St. was going through the development process.
The developers refused to back down on the size, despite its proximity to the Gunderson Historic District. Neighbors were delighted when the proposal was rejected by the Plan Commission but dismayed when the village board approved it. The board was at the time led by Anan Abu-Taleb, who ushered in the construction of several high-rise developments during his time as village president.
Residents traditionally come ready to battle developers out of fear that their homes will be dominated by enormous structures; developers come armed with the argument that scaling back would not be financially viable.
Oak Park resident Ken Kirsch, who lives in the district and attended the Dole Library meeting, feels big developers have an unfair advantage over residents in that they often get zoning relief, even in historic districts and then get praised for investing in the village. Meanwhile, homeowners in historic districts have to get village approval to make minor changes to the exterior of their homes.
“If I want to put different windows in my house, I have to go through this process,” Kirsch said. “And any developer it seems can come into this town with pockets full of a lot of development money and get away with murder.”
Many of those who turned up Thursday were vocal in their criticism though the tone of the meeting was civil. A group of concerned citizens formed in advance of the Ambrosia Homes’ public meeting, taking on the name “Oak Parkers for Wright-Sized Development.” Special shirts were made for the group, which were worn by several attendees. The group’s name is a play on words that represents the group’s intent to advocate for development that complements the famed architect’s work in both design and height.
Design and, most particularly, height were the two main concerns expressed at the meeting. The property on which Pomaville hopes to build is currently zoned to accommodate no more than 11 units and many residents wish to see that respected.
“In the Frank Lloyd Wright District, there are a lot of two-flats, four-flats, six-flats. How about that kind of density?” said local historian Frank Lipo, speaking in his capacity as a resident of the district.
“That’s still a great multifamily density, but it would be more tied into the existing structures.”
Ambrosia constructs residential buildings of various heights. Its portfolio includes single-family homes and townhouses, as well as multi-tenant buildings, including the 23-unit building at Madison Street and Lyman Avenue. The busy intersection of Chicago and Ridgeland avenues makes the property better suited to an apartment complex than a townhouse project, according to Pomaville.
More units, however, increases the need for parking. The village requires one spot per unit, so the building’s first floor, as currently planned, has been set aside for parking. First-floor parking leaves no room for retail space, something that also bothered residents.
On this, however, Pomaville could not entertain a compromise. The location is not near any public transportation stops, so tenants will need vehicles, making provided parking a necessity. While he may be inflexible in this instance, he maintains he is willing to make changes elsewhere if possible.
“A lot of times these [public] meetings bring up points that maybe we passed over when something was initially drawn, and it’s an opportunity to try to pick that up now,” he said.
The public meeting is only one step in the Oak Park development process. The proposal will next have to be reviewed by the Historic Preservation Commission and then the Plan Commission before finally going before the village board, which will determine the proposal’s fate. No dates have been set yet for those meetings but Pomaville’s hoping for a preservation commission hearing in May.
For those suspicious of developers and their willingness to play ball with the neighbors, Pomaville made this claim about Ambrosia Homes:
“We absolutely do care about Oak Park and we care about the people who live around us.”