More than a year ago, developer Barney O’Reilly was shocked by a 4-1 council vote to deny his townhouse project in the 500 block of Elgin Avenue. The plan required no exceptions to the zoning regulations and had the support of the village’s staff.
But a vocal contingent of neighbors who opposed the project caught the ear of public officials who were just months away from an election, and O’Reilly was told to come back with something that better fit the aesthetics of the neighborhood.
After weighing the merits of a lawsuit over the decision, O’Reilly began meeting regularly with the residents on the block. Last week-with roughly a dozen neighbors there to support him-he was given the go ahead by the zoning board on a revised project that is actually bigger than his 2006 proposal and relies on 10 variances to the zoning code.
“We had quite a bit of input into it,” Maurice O’Connor, a neighbor at 501 Elgin Ave. said in support of the project.
O’Connor spoke on behalf of his neighbors who had previously rejected the plan for its aesthetics, which were decidedly out of character with the Victorian style single-family homes that dominate the block.
However, the addition of front porches and gable-style roofs to the townhomes on the façade at Elgin Avenue “maintain the residential dignity of the block,” said O’Connor.
O’Reilly’s latest plans, which won approval from the zoning board on March 18 by a 5-2 vote, still call for two separate buildings at 504 and 508 Elgin Ave. But there will be five units per building instead of the four proposed in 2006, and each property requires a handful of exceptions to the zoning code.
The zoning board’s decision is an advisory vote and will be presented to the village council for a final decision in the coming weeks.
Immediately after the council voted in September 2006 to deny O’Reilly’s application, the neighborhood was rezoned from an R-3 district to an R-2 district. This change reduced the maximum allowable height from five stories, or 60 feet, to 2.5 stories, or 35 feet.
Both zoning districts allow for multi-family homes. Under the R-3 classification, single-family homes on the block were actually out of compliance. That is no longer the case.
Among the exceptions O’Reilly is seeking to the R-2 zoning that now applies is permission to construct a roofline to nearly 43 feet in height. He’s also requesting that a front yard setback requirement of roughly 24 feet be waived to accommodate a setback of less than 15 feet.
In a memo expressing support for the project, a consultant to the Forest Park’s Building Department, Jo Ellen Charlton, noted the height of the building as it faces Elgin Avenue is only two stories. Also, the reason for the setback request is to provide more off-street parking on the side of the property that fronts Harlem Avenue.
The density of the project, Charlton stated in her memo, is consistent with the village’s comprehensive plan for the area.
“Therefore, it is staff’s opinion that the variations should be supported if it can be agreed that the developer has made all reasonable efforts to address earlier concerns by neighboring residents that the project’s front appearance be more compatible with the surrounding properties,” Charlton said in her recommendation.
But support is the project was not unanimous, both in the neighborhood and among zoning board members.
Julie Herwitt, a resident of 505 Elgin Ave., remains skeptical about the density of the project. She’s concerned that traffic will become problematic and that such a large development will only contribute to drainage and sewer problems in the neighborhood that were widely acknowledged at the meeting.
“It’s disturbing to me to be back here for something that’s so similar to what [O’Reilly] previously proposed,” Herwitt told the board.
Board members Ray Paulin and William McKenzie both voted against the development, citing the density of the project and the number of variances it needs.
However, during his public testimony, O’Reilly told zoning officials that because of financial constraints he cannot reduce the number of units in the development. Such a change will kill the project, he said.
Chairman Austin Zimmer acknowledged that an applicant’s financial interests cannot be weighed by the board, but prefaced his vote in support of the proposal by commending O’Reilly for his willingness to work with neighbors.
“It’s time to move on and move forward,” Zimmer said.