A group of over 40 concerned residents, a virtually unprecedented turnout in Forest Park, met last week to discuss their concern regarding a proposed townhouse development which they say would destroy the character of their neighborhood.

The complex in question was proposed by developer Barney O’Reilly, who wants to tear down two large homes currently located at 504 and 508 Elgin in order to build a 12-unit townhouse project.

Though many residents felt their voices had been heard when the village’s Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) unanimously voted against recommending the plan in March, some said they were disappointed to later learn that the ZBA’s vote is only a recommendation and that the village council could, if it so desired, authorize the project despite the ZBA’s wishes.

“We are meeting tonight to find out how many are with us and if we have the solidarity we’ll need to save our neighborhood,” said Maurice O’Connor, who lives across the street from the site of the proposed complex. O’Connor was one of four panelists who spoke at the meeting.

Another panelist was Julie Herwitt, who said she had seen her old neighborhood in Lakeview fall victim to the same kind of high density development that she feels now threatens Forest Park.

“As developers came in, everything started to change,” she said, noting that her formerly diverse neighborhood became largely homogenous in terms of race, age and class.

“It became a place where people don’t know their neighbors and everyone has security systems,” she said.

She said that in addition to the density of the proposed project, she was concerned about its appearance. The townhouse complex would be split into two rows, divided by a driveway, meaning that the front doors would not face the street. She feared that the lack of visibility could encourage crime in the neighborhood.

In addition, she said, the development could overburden the block’s sewer system and complicate its traffic and parking situations.

“(All the units) would be feeding into the current sewer system, which right now, when it rains, already backs up into our basement,” she said.

One of the variances requested by O’Reilly was a reduction in the required number of shade trees, which Herwitt said would lead to further environmental problems as pollutants in the atmosphere would not be filtered property and water would not be absorbed.

Herwitt said she was hopeful that the council would follow the ZBA’s recommendation.

“If they feel that what they’re doing is in opposition to what the voting population wants they’ll be less likely to do that,” she said.

Village Administrator Michael Sturino attended the meeting, and was called upon mostly to clarify procedural matters regarding the options open to residents.

He informed residents that the suggestion of rezoning the side of the street where the proposed townhouses would be located, which is currently zoned for high density residential development, could only occur through a vote by the village council, though residents are free to petition elected officials for that or any other cause.

“I can assure you that the council knows what the issues are. I’ve had conversations with them. (Your voices) are being heard,” he said.

The event was moderated by Bob Cox, who insisted that the forum not be used as an opportunity to bash elected officials but rather a productive means for the neighbors of the proposed development to discuss their options.

One of the homes that would be demolished if the development was approved once belonged to Sharon Calderone, the late mother of Mayor Anthony Calderone. The homes are now apparently owned by O’Reilly and two partners, operating under the name 504-508 Elgin, LLC.

Rich Vitton of the Forest Park Historical Society was another panelist, but due to his chairmanship of the village’s Historic Preservation Commission declined to speak at length to avoid steering the conversation toward politics.

He noted that “the structure in question, in terms of design, does not match anything in the area,” and then deferred to panelist Eileish Tuffy of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois.

Tuffy, who once wrote a college thesis on retail development in Forest Park, informed residents of the possibility of protecting the neighborhood through historic preservation.

Though many are quick to take their preservation issues to the National Register of Historic Places, she said, only a local historic district has the ability to protect buildings from demolition.

Vitton said that the area of the proposed townhouses has all the characteristics necessary to qualify as a historic district, but over 50 percent of the residents in the area would need to sign on in order for such a district to be created.

If the area was made a historic district, all exterior renovations and new construction would be required to fit the character of the area, and demolition of historically significant homes could be prevented. Homeowners would then also be able to apply for state and federal grants for renovation projects on historic homes.

O’Reilly did not return calls seeking comment for this story. If he sticks with his current proposal, it will be voted upon by the village’s Plan Commission before eventually coming before the village council for a final vote.