Oak Park Trustees Approve Comcast Project
Controversy over affordable housing project settled with 6-1 vote.
A long vacant building on one of Oak Park’s major thoroughfares will become a site for affordable housing.
The village board on Monday voted 6-1 to back the height, density and parking variances the Interfaith Housing Development Corp. and the Oak Park Housing Authority requested to develop the property at 820-832 Madison St.
In approving the findings of fact drawn up by the plan commission, trustees added no extra conditions to the 21 the developers would have to meet to get a building permit.
The project, which has been under consideration for months, would allow low-income wage earners, seniors and people with disabilities who currently live and work in Oak Park to remain in the community and get a variety of supportive services through Catholic Charities.
An attempt to eliminate the criminal background check — which no other private developer currently has to meet — was turned down.
Trustee Glenn Brewer said background checks “would set a precedent…and would create a situation of unequal treatment of all our developers,” he said.
The lone dissenting vote came from John Hedges, who wanted to see a broader policy and public discussion of how this project would affect and fit into the community before individual projects, like the Comcast development, were considered.
The majority put their faith in the track record and reputation of Interfaith and the Housing Authority that this will be run really well and that concerns will be addressed as they arise.
“If we do it right, that can be a good thing…. I’m confident that they will,” Village President David Pope said.
'Nothing Unequal About This'
The residents of South Grove Avenue, where much of the opposition rested, expressed concerns about the tenants of the building, among other issues. Other opponents said the project would be labeled as a building for low-income people.
Trustees said much of the apprehension was based in fear.
Any concerns about segregating low-income people into one building was refuted during testimony before the plan commission by Rob Breymaier, executive director of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center.
It also became a pointed comment Monday by newly minted trustee Adam Salzman.
"If people trot out that term they should back it up. Segregation means separate but not equal. There’s nothing unequal about this,” he said.
Brewer said the project was an opportunity that Oak Park needed to seize.
“We have a chance to support opportunity housing….For some, this will be an opportunity to live independently and still be near family, for some they will be able to live near where they work and for some it is an opportunity to find safe and affordable housing who might not be able to afford but for this affordable and opportunity housing,” he said. “It also is an opportunity to stop dehumanizing low-income people.”
Trustees directed their comments at the opposition who had stated that there was plenty of scattered site affordable housing in Oak Park.
For Trustee Ray Johnson, that argument had to be countered, particularly for the disabled.
Scattered site housing — low-income housing placed throughout a community instead of being concentrated in a single neighborhood — is located in walk-up buildings, constructed in the 1900s, with no elevator and there are steps to the first floor, he said.
“Many units are excluded for people with the greatest need who the greatest challenges with regard to mobility and accessibility,” Johnson said. “I see this as a very diverse building that focuses on people on people who do not make as much money as I do.”
Trustee Colette Lueck said the supportive services will shore up a social safety net that is being unraveled by cuts at the state and federal levels.
“Ultimately this will allow Oak Park the chance to advance affordable housing and live its values. What will really advance those values she said is when people meet the tenants on the street and make them feel welcome in the community. That is something Oak Park will do,” she said.
Questions remain, however, about parking and whether the project will find the retail and commercial tenants for the first floor space — concerns expressed repeatedly by the neighbors.
Salzman said there were parking options to be explored, noting that the Comcast effort should be placed in the larger backdrop of revitalizing Madison Street.
Trustee Bob Tucker said that the village would hold the developers accountable for helping to resolve these and other issues.
A Neighborhood Reacts
Proponents were delighted.
Linda Hill, who lives near the development and whose daughter Meredith is disabled and has expressed a desire to live there, was thrilled.
“We can all move forward together in a way that would make this successful for everyone,” she said.
But her neighbors who opposed it were dejected.
Patricia O’Shea, a vocal opponent of the developments said she was “more disappointed at what I feel is Oak Park's departure from our vision of living side by side.
“I feel we, especially we in Oak Park, can and should do better.”
Douglas McMeyer, who proposed the suggestion of a cul-de-sac at the north end of the alley on Grove, was also disappointed.
“The project came out the same way it came in. I’m sorry the cul-de-sac won’t move forward. I don’t think they realized that the neighbors proposed paying for it.
The cul-de-sac, which residents proposed as a compensating benefit to their neighborhood, could be addressed six months after the building reaches full occupancy.
Once trustees approve a resolution granting the variances on June 6, developers will be ready to move forward with getting financing. Perry Vietti, Interfaith's chief operating officer, said zoning had to be granted first before financing could be secured.
The purchase price for the building has not been discussed, he said. That will come when the building is appraised at the end of the year, but said there as $25,000 down payment set out for the building.