The executive director of an Oak Park nonprofit aimed at racial diversity shot down claims that a proposed affordable housing development in a vacant Oak Park building would promote segregation.
Rob Breymaier, of the , told the village's plan commission the plan from developer to renovate the Comcast building, 801 Madison St., would attract a racially diverse population.
He said the surrounding neighborhood was middle-income and the size of the building — plans call for 51 one-bedroom units — would be too small to make any negative impact.
At Thursday's meeting at Oak Park Village Hall, Breymaier laid out his organization's take on the proposed project. Until the meeting, the housing center remained largely neutral on the controversial plan.
“Segregation is a structural force that promotes separate and exclusive patterns of opportunity,” he said. "In the case of housing segregation, this takes the form of patterns that separate housing choices by race and income. The proposed development works to counter structural patterns by providing affordable housing to people of all races in a neighborhood where very few affordable housing options exist. Moreover, they are affordable housing options that are rare within the entirety of Oak Park."
Breymaier was one of a handful of people who spoke at Thursday's meeting.
The plan comission is mulling whether or not to grant height, density and parking variances to the Interfaith Housing Network. The group wants to transform the vacant Comcast structure into a mixed-use building with retail on the first floor and 51 single-renter units on the second through fourth floors.
Opposition to the project has been strong. (A Facebook page titled "Concerned Citizens-Madison Avenue Housing Project" was created recently and is generating a groundswell.)
Opponents say thewould concentrate low-income tenants in a small area, would lead to lower property values and would be a bad fit in the neighborhood, .
David Schwartz, reading a statement written by his wife Naomi Katz, said high-density, low-income developments had been widely viewed as failures and would lead to an increase in crime.
More importantly, he said, a project like this would discourage young professionals from moving to Oak Park.
Scott Livingston opposed the plans for a different reason.
He said the plans represent an economic segregation, one that would discriminate against married couples and individuals with more than one child.
“We’re told that this isn’t a problem, because the project won’t violate federal or state discrimination laws,” Livingston said. “The very idea that we would accept a discriminatory housing project – regardless of the legal issues – is a sad comment on how far Oak Park has strayed from its values.”
But Bob Haisman, a supporter of the project, said the proposed renovations represent racial and economic diversity — values he said which led him to Oak Park in the first place.
“Focusing on just the zoning variances to the detriment of the values of our community, the reasons we chose to live here, the things that make Oak Park what it is would be a more serious problem,” Haisman said.
Public comment on the project will wrap up at the Feb. 17 meeting, when the project's developers and partners, including the and Catholic Charities, are expected to deliver summary statements supporting the porject.
Eight residents who oppose the project will also speak, and village officials may may weigh in on the plan.
A recommendation may be ready for a vote next month and the Oak Park Village Board is expected to vote later this spring.
If the project is approved, construction is slated to start in late 2011 or early 2012 with completion in late 2012.