Oak Park currently has two vacant church buildings which sit in residential neighborhoods. But with church attendance declining across America, the prospect that the village will face additional empty churches in the years ahead led village officials to attempt to get in front of the issue with a zoning change which would allow additional uses of such spaces.
But at a July 31 village board meeting, being proactive on one topic crashed directly into Oak Park’s most enduring challenge: parking.
Churches, which typically draw crowds during only limited hours of the week, are not bound by existing off-street parking requirements. But a church building potentially converted into a fitness studio, music venue or school, possible uses being considered by the village, would need to provide some amount of parking or be granted a waiver.
The village board was about to come to a 3-3 draw on the issue and chose instead to table the recommendation of the Plan Commission rather than see it defeated in a tie vote.
“Parking in this village sucks,” said Trustee Cory Wesley at the meeting.
The proposed ordinance would allow vacant churches to be used for non-religious purposes through an application process similar to that subjected to special use permits. Allowed adapted uses of former churches would be fitness and art studios, schools, meeting halls and live performance venues. Churches can also be converted into residences.
“It is changing the zoning without changing the zoning,” said Village Planner Craig Failor.
Currently there are two vacant churches in residential districts of Oak Park. One is the former New Spirit Community Church, 542 S. Scoville Ave., and the former Parkview Church, 641 S. Oak Park Ave. Other churches have approached the village with concerns over viability, Failor told the board, but those churches are not in a position to make public what they plan to do with their buildings.
Parkview Church does not have a parking lot, but if it were to be converted, it would have to provide off-street parking. That requirement was of chief concern to Trustee Brian Straw, who argued some of the permissible adapted reuses might not require as much parking as a church would, while others might require more parking and any multi-family housing use would necessitate overnight parking for residents. The parking requirement does not extend to churches if they operate as a house of religious worship.
“If someone’s not coming in to use [a vacant church] for a religious use, they have an additional parking burden unless they can get a special exception,” said Straw.
Providing parking is already mandatory for the allowed uses for which owners of vacant churches may soon be able to apply. The number of spaces required is set by existing zoning rules, but that requirement can be lessened or cut completely through a zoning variance, which would be discussed during a hearing process. Keeping the requirement, as both Trustee Lucia Robinson and Ravi Parakkat preferred, is consistent with current village zoning.
“This is not a burdensome requirement,” said Robinson. “It’s a requirement that already exists.”
The adaptive use applications would be processed the same way as special use applications. The applications have hearings before the Zoning Board of Appeals, unless there is an overflow of applications, in which case they are heard by the Plan Commission.
This is standard practice, according to Failor, and the village board would make the final decision on any such applications, as they do for other requests that go through those two commissions. If a vacant church is in a historic district, as well as residential, any proposed modifications to that building would require the applicant to go through the Historic Preservation Commission to obtain a certificate of appropriateness.
“What we don’t want [an applicant] to do is change the historic façade of the building,” said Failor.
Wesley incurred the sharp tongue of Plan Commission Chair Iris Sims for questioning why the village did not just allow the permitted reuses by right. Doing so, he argued, would make it easier for a business to open in a vacant church in a residential district. But Sims, who lives near a vacant church, accused Wesley of wanting to “put the rights of people buying empty churches ahead of the residents of this village.”
“That’s what you’re saying,” said Sims.
The concern for residents expressed that night by Sims was a marked change in attitude from earlier this summer when neighbors of Rush Oak Park Hospital sought to rezone the hospital campus to protect their homes from being encroached upon by hospital expansion. Those residents Sims called “adversarial” at a June village board meeting and previously declined their request to recuse herself from the application’s hearing. Sims has said she does not consider her husband’s seat on the hospital’s board of directors a conflict of interest.
Wesley’s by right preference was born out of the concern that the lengthy and bureaucratic application process could impede leasing, which in turn could leave the church properties vacant for a much longer period. He also expressed concern that it could add to the workloads of staff and commissions, while costing the applicant money. The application could also ultimately be turned down, leaving the applicant with nothing after putting in the time and effort of going through the process.
The permitted reuses promoted for vacant churches are all new to residential districts, according to Failor, which is the reason why applicants must go through a process. The process requires a public hearing, allowing residents neighboring the vacant church in question to voice their opinions and get more information about the application.
One of those permitted reuses for a vacant church is an indoor performance venue, limited to live musical concerts and theatrical plays. Such a venue could raise concerns among neighbors regarding noise and traffic, which they could express during the hearing.
“This gives the public an opportunity to have a say in what might be happening in their neighborhood,” Failor said.
The motion to table was suggested by Village President Vicki Scaman as the lack of consensus could have rendered a 3-3 vote, which would have killed the ordinance completely. The board was down one member at its meeting as Trustee Susan Buchanan was absent. Wesley and Robinson were the only members to vote against tabling.
In putting the ordinance up for a vote while the village has only two applicable churches vacant, the village intended to stay ahead of the curve, but tabling has thwarted any immediate progress. September is the earliest the ordinance could return to the village board, as it is in recess for the month of August.