Oak Park village board gives another extension to Madison Highland project

Neighbors oppose board lenience

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By Anna Lothson

Staff Reporter

The long-delayed, controversial four-story Oak Park office building slated for Madison Street is still a viable project its architect says, but surrounding residents didn't agree.

Nevin Hedlund, the project's architect spoke on behalf of the Madison Highland Development team at Monday's village board meeting, and requested that the board reinstate the previously approved planned unit development. The group needed another approval because the project missed its latest May 16 deadline for an extension.

Despite the neighbors' concerns — which focused on the fact that this is the 8th extension for the group — board members concluded they had no choice but to grant an extension. Trustees expressed concern about the project's future, but because the developers purchased the land from the village years ago, they concluded not approving the measure would only add another delay.

Before board members got their say, two residents spoke up, including John Murphy, who lives on Highland just south of where the project is planned to be built.

"Saying it doesn't make it so," Murphy said, referring to the development team's letter promising the project remains feasible.

He cited the history of the project, which was approved by the board in 2009 following a negative recommendation from the plan commission. He also was frustrated with the continuous delays the board approves.

"The board sets deadlines for a reason," Murphy said. "It's not open ended. It should never be open ended. …It's not good for the property. It's not good for the community." They are essentially asking for an open ended commitment from the board. …That's unacceptable in my view."

The resident concluded by encouraging the board to reject the reinstatement ordinance that would give the group until April 2014 to go ahead with its plans. Murphy said he didn't believe the group can deliver on its promises and the board shouldn't either.

Another neighbor, David Kralik, said he understood the recession was tough on developers during the time the project was being proposed, but he and his neighbors feel substantial progress needs to be made before the board supports the project going ahead.

"The time has come for them to move forward with this project," Kralik said. A handful of buildings in the area have been taken down to prep space for development, but progress stopped there, the resident said. Everyone wants successful commercial development on Madison, he concluded, but this project has created a "cavern at the end of the block."

"We welcome development," he said. "But time is time. There has got to be a time to say no."

Trustees followed the residents' comments with a handful of questions about what would happen if the board didn't grant the necessary reinstatement of the previously approved plan.

Trustee Glenn Brewer spoke up first, saying that because the Madison Highland group purchased the land, along with the air rights over Highland, the development could happen regardless of what the board decided.

The architect stressed that not reinstating the proper plans would be a significant step backward. He also emphasized to trustees that no office building has been built in Oak Park since 1968, and that the development group is willing and attempting to invest in the village.

"We have been trying to make this work. We are trying to be partners with village entity. We are making a good faith effort," Hedlund said. "And we continue to try and make it a go."

The group hasn't finalized any tenants, but there are talks underway with two potential office tenants. The mixed-use project calls for parking, office space, and ground-floor retail. Although tenants aren't secured, Hedlund said once one piece starts moving, others will follow.

"It's not for lack of effort that we haven't built something as of this date," he said. Hedlund focused his comments on the group's ability to move ahead, but he also told trustees he couldn't guarantee the development would break ground in six months.

A schedule provided by the development team in a letter dated June 12 shows it hoped to have leases signed by fall and have building permits submitted by the year's end. This has construction starting in March 2014, with an estimated completion in Feb. 2015.

Trustee Peter Barber echoed Brewer's comments about what would happen if the board didn't approve the motion. He agreed not moving forward would complicate the situation and slow the process the developers would have the right to go through anyway since they own the land. Based on the comments, trustees wanted more assurance the development will happen, but concluded moving forward was best for all parties.

"There is a good possibility that you will be back in [April] for another extension," Trustee Colette Lueck said. "But that is not our loss. That's your money. You are the one with the skin in the game here. I think for us, if we were going to turn this down, you go back to square one. ….I don't see where the village stake is here."

She, like her colleagues, referenced that the developers own the land and air rights, so the controversial bridge aspect of the development spanning over Highland that upset neighbors is out of the village's hands.

Following discussion, the board unanimously approved the reinstatement ordinance that allows the developer to attempt to achieve the projected development schedule as presented. Immediately after the vote a handful of disappointed residents quietly voiced discontent as they walked out of the board room.

Email: anna@oakpark.com Twitter: @AnnaLothson

Reader Comments

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to john butch  

Posted: July 9th, 2013 10:25 AM

Can you say MJ Schuler. Of course they were privy to information. Money talks, simple as that. I am sure the bike lane will circle back to greenline wheels somehow.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: July 4th, 2013 1:31 AM

In October, 2009, the Village Board approved the Madison Highland (MH) development. Immediately after the approval, the MH Madison Highland investors announced in a promotional news release that "(The) Development is (a) catalyst for redevelopment on Madison Street promoting a walkable, bikeable community." If you live near Madison you know that Madison is not the place to ride your bike. It's not safe. So is MH clairvoyant or did they have insight that others did not? Fact is; Neither the MH 2006 Madison Corridor Plan or the 2008 Massing Plan suggested or recommended bike lanes. The public did not become aware bike lanes until late 2011 when the board paid $100,000 to do a feasibility study that became the Madison Diet. Why was MH aware of a possibility of bike lanes in 2009? Was there a quid pro quo regarding MH and the village re a road diet and bike lanes? Would MH continue to pursue the project if the board chose not to use the TIF for streetscaping and a road diet? It has been announced that during the summer the board will address Madison issues that will probably include the spending of the balance of the TIF money. The use of the Tif monies should be for the benefit of the entire village, not a single project.

John Murphy  

Posted: July 3rd, 2013 7:45 PM

Thanks. I stand corrected on that point. Yet, it doesn't alter my central point that the developers simply cannot build that specific project without village authorization. The "bridge" or "viaduct" was designed specifically for that project. It makes little design sense in a different project. Again, nothing is inevitable. The board needs to take its deadlines and responsibilities seriously.

Bridgett from Oak Park  

Posted: July 3rd, 2013 6:45 PM

Nevin Hedlund said at Monday's meeting "...the sale of the land also included air rights over Highland as part of the land sale. So we as land owners purchased from the Village the land and the air rights over Highland. So that's part of what we purchased and what we own today regardless of the approval. So by right, we have the right to build over Highland based on the land purchase from the Village." At 1:14:25 of video http://oak-park.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=2&clip_id=329

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: July 3rd, 2013 4:00 PM

Hi Bridget ---- I have not found much specific information on legal issues regarding the Madison Highland "bridge" , but I did find some articles on the subject that shed some light. Below are the URL's for five of the articles I thought were worthwhile. The URL's are separated by xxx's. John http://www.oakpark.com/News/Articles/9-8-2009/Madison-St.-office-building-nixed-by-plan-commission/ xxx http://www.oakpark.com/News/Blogs/1-1-2013/Madison-Street-office-development-in-Oak-Park-still-in-play/ xxx http://www.oakpark.com/News/Articles/8-9-2011/Oak-Park-office-building-at-Madison-and-Highland-delayed-again/ xxx http://madisonhighlandsop.com/news/index.html xxx http://www.wednesdayjournalonline.com/ftp/pdfs/madisonhighland_063009.pdf xxx http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2009-10-23/news/0910210497_1_two-buildings-village-board-request-for-redevelopment-proposals

Enuf is Enuf from Oak Park  

Posted: July 3rd, 2013 3:54 PM

Once again, the village painted themselves in a corner by not assigning a value to their risk in a development project, and by not requiring guaranteed financing in place at time of approval (and demolition of existing buildings, if applicable). In the event any development cannot be fulfilled by the terms of the redevelopment agreement, there should be a contractual clause which defines penalties paid to the village as compensation for lost property taxes and other development opportunities.

Bridgett from Oak Park  

Posted: July 3rd, 2013 3:09 PM

Wait, you're saying the air rights are not for over the street? Not over Highland? Just on the parcels on either side of Highland? Is there any public documentation to support what you're saying? I'd like to see this, as that was not made clear at the board meeting.

Bridgett from Oak Park  

Posted: July 3rd, 2013 3:04 PM

I understand that a variance was issued. And I understand that the Board could have let this expire, meaning that the developers would need to reapply for the variance. But my question is: Can you accept payment for air rights, but then prevent the entity that gave you such money, from using the air space that you sold them? Not granting a variance would be obstructing their ability to use the air space they purchased. Or am I missing something?

John Murphy from Oak Park  

Posted: July 3rd, 2013 1:24 PM

Correct. The owners have the air rights to the property, but not over the street. They needed a variance to build across the street. There are other variances in the project that would expire ( and need village reapproval) as well. The owners can build on that property without village approval only if they stay within the zoning regs. Madison-highlands does not. So nothing is inevitable.

OP Resident  

Posted: July 3rd, 2013 1:02 PM

I agree -Ms. Schuler seems to have her way with anything she wants to do in Oak Park. the Planning Commission said no to this project but the village went right ahead with it. There is no way this developer should get this many opportunities to find someone to use this space. In the meantime the residents of the area are constantly threatened with this monstrosity coming to fruition. The village bd should never have approved this but with Ms. Schuler, of course, yes is the answer!

Bridgett from Oak Park  

Posted: July 3rd, 2013 1:01 PM

So are you saying that owning air rights doesn't give the developers the right to build the bridge? Are you saying that the Village could accept payment for the air rights, and then deny the developers' ability to build "on" that air?

John Murphy from Oak Park  

Posted: July 3rd, 2013 12:53 PM

There is nothing inevitable about it. The board seems to be operating under the same misconception. To build this specific development, the developers were granted zoning variances. Without board approval ( and we can only hope the board does not act as a rubber stamp for developers) , the variances will not exist. The developers cannot build this project or it will need to be dramatically redesigned. Suggesting the village has no stake amounts to an unintentional abdication of responsibility.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: July 3rd, 2013 12:52 PM

There was an incredible statement made by a board trustee at the meeting extending the Madison Highlands project for the eighth time. The statement, "I don't see where the village stake is here." In fact, it does have a stake. The village loses revenue every time projects are renewed over and over again without assurance from developers the project is making any progress. The Madison Highlands project was approved by the board in 2009. It was a challenging economic time for an investment but the developer chose to move forward. So did the village. After four years, the developer had seven extensions for a project the Plan Commission recommended against. Difficulty getting financing has been the reason for additional extensions, yet the article gives no indication that the Madison Highland financing problems are over. The same is true for Sertus. In its request for its eighth extension, the developer cites one sign of progress. They have two "potential" tenants. Nothing has changed since the developer missed their seventh deadline on May 16, but suddenly the developer decides to go forward, or was coaxed to go forward by the village. The village has a stake in the project (revenue), but chose not to execute it. They had an opportunity to review the project in the context of the entire Madison Corridor by rejecting or delaying the request for an eighth extension, but chose not to. Why? Was streetscaping and a bike path part of the decision? The board vote (consent agenda) unanimously approved the extension without discussion. Transparency continues to be elusive.

Bridgett from Oak Park  

Posted: July 3rd, 2013 9:48 AM

@WSMDT, I don't think who the developers are had any impact on the decision for the extension. The horse is already out of the barn on this deal. What would have happened if the Board didn't vote in favor of the extension, is that the developers would have had to go through the planning commission process again, delaying the inevitable by about four months. I say "inevitable" because they own the property, including the air rights. They could change the plans, but legally they don't have to.

Who says money doesn't talk  

Posted: July 3rd, 2013 8:56 AM

You only need to know who is backing or is the developer in order to understand the extension. Can you say MJ Shuler.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: July 3rd, 2013 12:15 AM



Posted: July 2nd, 2013 10:54 PM

Does John's yapper ever shut??

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: July 2nd, 2013 10:37 PM

Why do I have the feeling that David Pope is acting as the consultant and lobbyist for the board and staff. This deal looks like a continuance of the center of Madison Illness -- too many piecemeal projects that never get done. Please do not attempt to use this as a sign of Madison Rebirth and cause for a celebration.

Bridgett from Oak Park  

Posted: July 2nd, 2013 10:22 PM

Good reporting, Anna. The residents were definitely upset about the bridge. And the developer, who spoke last, was the first to mention the purchase of the air rights. When that was mentioned, the whole conversation immediately shifted.

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