Lake Street apartment proposal gets win

Design praised by Historic Preservation Commission

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By Stacey Sheridan

Staff Reporter

The Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission praised a proposal to build an apartment complex at 835 Lake St., within 250 feet of Unity Temple and in the Ridgeland-Oak Park Historic District. 

During the advisory review held Oct. 8, commissioners expressed their approval of the building's "horizontal emphasis" and "contemporary" look. The project was designed by SPACE Architects with the input of Wight & Company, the village of Oak Park's design consultant. 

"Trying to mimic a historical style, we feel would often result in failed attempts," said project architect Jay Keller. "We feel that contemporary design is the way to go in the situation."

The developer behind the proposal is Michigan Avenue Real Estate Group (MAREG), the same development group that won village board approval Aug. 4 to build a controversial 5-story, 42-unit apartment building at 435 to 451 Madison St.

The proposed Lake Street complex would sit on the site of an empty U.S. Bank drive-thru, just two parcels east of Unity Temple, across from Scoville Park and the main branch of the Oak Park Public Library. 

The six-story, 84-unit apartment building has a sixth-floor setback from the front, which gives the appearance of a shorter structure. 

"From the pedestrian scale, it will read more as a five-story building," said Keller.

Most of the units are two-bedrooms with a few one- and three-bedroom units. The ground floor will primarily serve as tenant parking with loading in the back, according to Keller. 

"We will be using a current (village of) Oak Park parking lot for additional parking for the development," said Keller, who did not specify which parking lot. "There will be about 16 spaces left over that we will be allotting to likely different users that are in need in and around the development."

The ground floor will also have a fitness center for residents, a management office and a small ATM kiosk. 

All traffic will come through the back of the building with access to parking located in the south alley. As designed, the complex will have rooftop solar panels, snagging it a LEED Silver rating from Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design.

SPACE Architects did diagram and sightline studies coming down Lake Street to ensure that the building does not obscure the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Unity Temple in any way.

"[We're] trying to pay great respect to that wonderful UNESCO World Heritage site and wonderful architect obviously," said Keller.

The architects also did extensive sun shadow studies, the results of which were presented to Unity Temple, to guarantee that the building casts no shadow into any of the church's windows.  

SPACE Architects intends to conduct more sun studies to see what shadow the building would cast on Scoville Park. However, shadows will only impact the park during winter when trees and plants are bare, according to Keller. 

Former village trustee Greg Marsey and resident Wendy Greenhouse submitted the two public comments regarding the project, questioning the architect's decision to use a lighter-colored material on the façade of the apartment complex, which they believe will look jarring compared to the red brick buildings flanking it on either side.

To the east of the project on Lake Street is a three-story 1920s vintage courtyard building. To its west is the six-story Oak Hotel, a complex of studio apartments which is currently undergoing major renovations.

The commissioners widely agreed with Marsey and Greenhouse's concerns, with Commissioner David Sokol finding them "very compelling."

"I think it would serve the whole area much better to have the modest change of the color palette to reflect the two buildings that flank the proposed building rather than try to pick up any minor detail, color or otherwise from Unity Temple," said Sokol.

Sokol said the proposed building does not do any "violence" to the historic district and noted that the architects had addressed the effects of shadows and scale. 

"I do not think we have any concern about that," Sokol said.

Commissioner Noel Weidner first and foremost wanted to protect Unity Temple and felt it important to monitor construction, as requested by the Unity Temple Restoration Fund. 

"The scale is much better, emphasizing the horizontality versus the very vertical previous concepts we've seen for this site," said Weidner. "The setback is great with the park across the street. It really keeps the scale in check and keeps it pedestrian-friendly."

The commission's other major concern was the six-foot setback on the eastside of the building, which MAREG and SPACE Architects had previously agreed to increase to 10 feet, which satisfied the commissioners.

"I like the building," said Commissioner Lou Garapolo, who especially liked that the first floor was mostly parking but had a lot of glass windows to make the building look more open. 

The commissioners also agreed that the MAREG proposal was far superior to that of the massive 300-foot residential high-rise proposed last year by Golub & Company. Following heavy criticism, Golub & Company elected to withdraw the application.

"Overall I appreciate this proposal a lot more than the 28-story proposal that was floated a couple years ago," said Commissioner Sandra Carr.

Commissioner Jennifer Bridge felt similarly to Carr and Wiedner.

"Let's make sure that we monitor what's going on at Unity Temple during construction," said Bridge. "Overall this is such a vast improvement over what was proposed before. It's a good thing."

Chair Rebecca Houze was the only commission member to express uncertainty over the proposed structure's scale and massing. 

"Scale still seems very kind of massive to me in relationship to the two condos on either side," said Houze. "They are just much more dainty." 

Although not in the purview of the Historic Preservation Commission, Houze raised questions about the development's target market to which MAREG President Tom Meador responded that the average age of tenants in their buildings are young professional couples in their mid-30s with generally high incomes and few children. 

"The overall tenant quality is going to be professional and fairly highly paid people," said Meador.

As such, prospective tenants can expect accordingly high rents.

"Our rents are going to be pretty high," said Meador. "We may set a new bar for rents in the Oak Park area."

The Historic Preservation Commission will write a review of the proposal for the Plan Commission, which will evaluate the MAREG proposal next. A date for the Plan Commission meeting has not been announced. The project will eventually come before Oak Park's village board.

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