There wasn’t a single good solution in the recent Oak Park Village Board debate over how to ease the reuse of vacant church buildings in the village. Everyone agrees that being pro-active, on what will inevitably be a growing issue, is wise.
Right now Oak Park has two vacant churches. Village officials say two other congregations have come forward and expressed worry over their viability. The issue is local and it is national as church attendance declines and churchgoers age.
Everyone agrees that expanding permitted uses of church buildings is essential. Reuse as apartments or condos is now approved. Also allowed will be fitness studios, art galleries or small performance venues. More active commercial uses—restaurants or breweries—would require zoning variances as many of the likely impacted church facilities sit in largely residential neighborhoods.
Where this gets complicated, of course, is parking. Turn a church into condos and you have an overnight parking challenge. Convert a church at Adams and Scoville into a music venue and you potentially have crowds multiple nights a week.
The narrow decision of the village board last week was to follow a staff recommendation that would allow new uses while creating customized parking solutions to each situation driven by staff. Trustees critical of that choice also agreed that parking restrictions will need to be eased as potential uses are weighed. They wanted to hold back eased parking limits as a point of negotiation with potential developers.
Both are credible positions. Both reflect the need to plan for additional empty church buildings and recognize that, as always, parking will be complicated and imperfect.