During a zoning board meeting Monday an auto mechanic came face to face with the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Or was it a ghost?

Since 1986 Rod Nunley has operated the Elite Tire and Auto Shop on Harlem Avenue out of a garage he leases. With his contract for the space set to expire in June 2009, Nunley is looking to build his own shop just south of his current location at the junction with Franklin Street on land that he bought several years ago. But he’ll have to convince Forest Park officials that his repair shop has as much right to sit on one of the village’s gateway corridors as any larger, perhaps more lucrative proposal.

“From talking with staff, we know that is the village’s ultimate desire, to develop the entire block,” Nunley’s architect John Schiess said during the June 16 hearing.

To date, there are no specific plans for the commercial strip between Franklin Street and Circle Avenue. But River Forest developer Tim Hague’s presence at the meeting was unmistakable and lent credence to what, thus far, has been only vague promises of big things to come.

“At this point, we’re sort of fighting a ghost,” Schiess said.

The village’s Comprehensive Plan calls for large-scale, multi-use developments on that site that can capitalize on the block’s proximity to a Chicago Transit Authority el station and generate a maximum amount of revenue for municipal coffers. Nunley’s auto shop, while certainly a stable community business, does not fit the goals of the Comprehensive Plan, according to a memo prepared by Forest Park’s Department of Public Health and Safety. It is essentially a single-story project with only one use. It also veers from the proscribed list of coffee shops, dry cleaners and other pedestrian friendly shops that can easily occupy a ground floor space in a multi-use building.

Nunley was before the zoning board requesting a variance to provide 29 parking spaces at his proposed garage. Based on the square-footage of the project, 56 spaces would be required.

Though Hague would not make clear his financial interest in the Circle Plaza LLC that owns much of the surrounding land – he said only that he is an “agent” for the group – he argued it is in the village’s best interest to pass on Nunley’s garage. Hague asked the Zoning Board of Appeals to deny any variances needed to push the mechanic’s shop through. However, not at the podium, nor later in response to direct questioning from the Review, would Hague intimate that any particular project has been lined up for the neighborhood.

“This portion of Harlem Avenue can enjoy the same success they have had to the north” at the intersection with Lake Street in Oak Park, Hague said.

Village Administrator Mike Sturino said he and Hague have been trying to convince Nunley to sell his property at 7201 Franklin St. and take his shop elsewhere for “well over a year.” Sturino, too, has declined to say specifically what might be proposed for the Circle Plaza properties. In addition to Nunley’s current garage, the land is occupied by a CVS pharmacy and Dunkin’ Donuts.

Zoning board Chairman Austin Zimmer questioned why, after 22 years of allowing Nunley to operate his shop as a tenant, Hague was suddenly pushing the business to relocate. In response to a lengthy presentation from an attorney representing Circle Plaza, Zimmer tried to paint a very black and white picture.

“The gist of it is your client wants to buy the property, [Nunley] won’t sell it to your client and that’s why you’re here,” Zimmer said.

The attorney, William Mitchell, said that statement was true in part, but reminded board members that the village took the step of establishing a tax increment finance district in that area to spur large-scale development. Nunley’s garage represents an inappropriate and “piece meal” approach to the neighborhood, said Mitchell.

“Our motives would be to include Mr. Nunley in a comprehensive development,” Mitchell said.

Officially, the zoning board took no action on Nunley’s proposal and the request for a variance will be heard by the village council without a recommendation from the zoning board. A motion to deny the necessary variances failed by a vote of 3-3. Board member Burak Tanyu was absent. Voting with Zimmer to support Nunley’s project were Richard Scafidi and Al Bucholtz.

In voting to deny the variances, board member Ray Paulin said his decision had little to do with any talk of more grand developments and relied simply on the recommendation from staff that the Comprehensive Plan is a document worth adhering to.

“We need to start dealing with the Comprehensive Plan and working on that,” Paulin said “This was looking like something that doesn’t fit the Comprehensive Plan.”