The Oak Park village board narrowly passed a zoning change allowing the conversion of vacant churches in residential districts into other uses but was unable to find consensus on what to do about parking requirements.

“Parking here sucks,” said Trustee Cory Wesley. “This is a system I despise here in Oak Park, truthfully, and one that we really need to improve.”

The village board decided to rule in favor of staff’s recommendation to remove the parking requirements associated with the eligible uses into which vacant churches can be converted. Wesley – like Village President Vicki Scaman – cast a vote in favor of staff’s recommendation, but not without wrestling with the implications of such a vote for a community famously lacking in available parking.

Wesley said he felt “really bad” voting in support of staff’s recommendation as he believes it is “in favor of a system” he wants to modify. Scaman, meanwhile, shared her faith in village staff to help people navigate parking at establishments operating out of former churches, should any come to exist.

“I trust that staff is always going to help people through a process,” she said.

Trustees Lucia Robinson and Ravi Parakkat were the sole trustees to vote against staff’s recommendation. The former wanted to leverage the village’s ability to relax parking restrictions as an incentive to developers, a suggestion with which the latter trustee agreed.

Eligible uses for vacant churches include fitness studios, small performance venues, art galleries, meeting halls, offices and apartments. Staff’s recommendation eliminates the burden on developers to provide the parking required of those uses under normal circumstances.

For apartment buildings, residents who live in those units and have cars would have to get an overnight parking permit through the village. The village will now have to develop an on-street parking permit process for converted religious structures turned into apartments.

Oak Park has two vacant churches available for potential conversion, New Spirit Community Church, on Scoville Avenue, and the former Parkview Church, on Oak Park Avenue.

The zoning change is a proactive measure for the village. Oak Park has an abundance of churches despite the community being just under five square miles in physical size. At least two other Oak Park churches have shared viability concerns with the village, according to village Planner Craig Failor.

Church attendance has declined nationally, putting many houses of worship at risk of closure and vacancy. Instead of tearing them down, developers and preservationists have gotten creative.

A historic church in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood was recently repurposed into a luxury home. About five years before, another empty Lakeview church became a condo building.

Not far from Chicago, a deconsecrated Methodist church in New Buffalo, Mich., is now known Beer Church. The micro-brewery, which opened in 2017, leans into the building’s religious past, keeping iconography and serving such beers as the “Pontius Pilate” India pale ale.

The growing popularity of microbreweries combined with dwindling congregation numbers has led to the opening of establishments similar to Beer Church across the United States – and in the Chicago-area.

The owners of Chicago’s Eris Brewery and Cider House won the 2019 Richard H. Driehaus Foundation award for adaptive use for their transformation of a historic Masonic hall. The hall was most recently used as a Presbyterian church before it was converted into the brewery.

At this time, microbreweries are not among the eligible uses for vacant churches in residential districts of Oak Park. Should a developer wish to open one, doing so would require a zoning ordinance text amendment, according to Failor.

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