Shortly after the village scrapped plans for a townhouse project in the 500 block of Elgin Avenue last September, developer Barney O’Reilly received an invitation to renew discussions on the project from a most unlikely source.
“I thought it would be better for everybody if we could work together on this,” Julie Herwitt, a resident of 505 Elgin Ave. said.
Herwitt and her husband live directly across the street from O’Reilly’s properties at 504 and 508 Elgin Ave., and were adamantly opposed to his plans to raze two single-family homes for a couple of four-story townhouses. Herwitt was joined by dozens of other neighborhood residents in opposing the project, and were rewarded with a nearly unanimous decision from the village council to reject O’Reilly’s proposal.
Three months later, Herwitt and a handful of other residents are working side-by-side with O’Reilly to create a plan that everyone can live with.
“I would say they’re definitely thinking outside of the box, which is what it will take to get this project done,” O’Reilly said.
Initially, O’Reilly said he was surprised to hear from the residents so soon after the council voted 4-1 not to approve the site plan. Discussions with the residents during the design stage for the original project eventually fizzled, and at every public meeting with the village, O’Reilly found himself at odds with a vocal opponent and an election season rapidly approaching.
For several weeks O’Reilly and his staff at Cherryfield Development considered suing Forest Park for failing to approve a site plan that complied with all of the village’s ordinances. However, with projects scattered throughout the community, O’Reilly said a court battle would likely do more harm than good.
“There’s no winners when it comes to legal cases,” O’Reilly said. “I don’t get rich paying attorney’s fees. We have a very good case, there’s no disputing that, but that’s not the way we want to do it. It’s all about a little good will.”
The redesigned development still calls for two multi-family structures, however, the aesthetics have changed. On the Elgin Avenue side, the buildings will more closely resemble the single-family homes that dominate the block. On the Harlem Avenue side, the buildings will be taller and look more like the townhouses that they are.
The new design also includes one more unit than the previous proposal, making the development denser than the one that was voted down.
One of the largest hurdles that O’Reilly and the residents working with him have identified will be the planned consolidation of the two lots into one. Further, a request to have the project considered as a Planned Unit Development is also expected to raise some eyebrows.
John Plepel, who lives at 532 Elgin Ave., said it’s unlikely the village will allow two structures on a single lot, but said he’s hopeful that zoning officials will see the cooperative spirit behind the project. Plepel is also a candidate for Forest Park commissioner in this year’s spring election.
“He’s trying to be reasonable,” Plepel said of O’Reilly.
No formal plans have been submitted to the municipality, though Village Administrator Mike Sturino said he has seen a copy of the preliminary drawings. Sturino said there a number of problems with the project that likely stem from O’Reilly’s willingness to consider the ideas of property owners who have little or no professional training in property development.
According to Sturino, the plans are “filled with bad planning design and frankly, traffic hazards that we can’t, from a staff perspective, recommend.”
Though the specific recommendations of a neighboring property owner may not fit with the village’s zoning, Sturino said it’s always a positive to see developers working with residents.
Herwitt still isn’t sold on the revisions made to the plans and said she’s not sure whether she would speak in favor of the project if it went before the village. The density is still too much, she said, but O’Reilly’s attention to the aesthetics has been sincere.
Skepticism has been an ingredient in the relationship between the neighbors and the developer, Plepel said. The residents recognize the profit motive that O’Reilly has, and the power that public opinion has over the council isn’t lost on the developer.
“I don’t think that’s lost on anyone, that he’s being responsive now because he’s a really nice guy,” Plepel said. “This is a business for him.”
O’Reilly credited the Elgin Avenue residents with thinking creatively and making an effort to embrace changes to their community. Both sides recognize the inevitability of development, O’Reilly said, and are working toward a solution.
“It’s not that I’m trying to be nice now or that I wasn’t nice before,” O’Reilly said. “I’m looking for a resolution and the residents are looking for a resolution.”