During a public hearing this month on whether a restaurant’s illegally constructed addition should be allowed to stand, an attorney for the restaurant owner was asked to explain how substantial changes to the project went apparently undetected by village inspectors who are now claiming the building has a number of problems. That attorney, Rosario Picone, sidestepped the question and told zoning officials there were probably several versions of the truth.
A record of that truth – or even anyone’s version of it – is absent from the building department’s file on the new dining room added to Gaetano’s, 7636 Madison, late this summer.
At the request of this newspaper, Village Administrator Tim Gillian and Mayor Anthony Calderone made public a stack of paperwork detailing Forest Park’s oversight of the project. Not one piece of paper generated by the municipality or the restaurant mentions any problems with the project. It is also nearly impossible to corroborate the timeline of when public officials have said they took umbrage with the work being done.
The lack of documentation allows for conflicting accounts of how a beer garden became a fully-enclosed dining room, and seems to offer no one any evidence of their supposed efforts to keep the project in compliance with local zoning and building regulations. Commissioner Marty Tellalian, however, said that during a closed meeting of the village council in October the mayor acknowledged telling the restaurant owner to go ahead and alter his plans.
“Not only did I not tell him he could, I was instrumental in getting it stopped,” Calderone said in denying the allegation.
The council voted July 13 to allow Gaetano’s to build cinderblock walls that would enclose a small patio behind the popular restaurant. Beginning several feet above the top of the walls would be a pitched roof, essentially creating a gazebo for summer diners. Then the sudden resignation of the building department director on Aug. 5 threw the office into disarray. According to Tellalian, it was during this period – before Gillian took the village administrator’s office – that Calderone improperly told the restaurant it could change the project.
The restaurant’s attorney, Picone, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
In October, the council met behind closed doors to discuss the promotion of Bob Teets, a longtime building inspector, to lead the department. Teets was already running the office as the interim director. By this time, the restaurant had substantially completed the new dining room. Tellalian said he argued that without an accounting of how the project veered off course, it would be inappropriate to promote anyone in the office.
“I thought we should find out what went wrong and find out who’s responsible,” Tellalian said. “The mayor’s statement at that time was the building department came to him with new plans.
” ‘Who were they supposed to come to,’ he said, ” according to Tellalian.
Calderone acknowledged that the subject of restaurant owner Gateano DiBenedetto’s project surfaced during that discussion. He also confirmed that members of the building department came to him with questions about revised drawings that DiBenedetto had submitted. The mayor could not recall when that occurred, but said he contacted the village’s law firm with his concerns and promptly had the construction halted.
The municipal records turned over to the Review did not include any notice to the restaurant to stop the project. Gillian, who assumed the village administrator’s job on Sept. 15, has also said that a stop-work order was issued shortly after he started.
“Quite honestly, my inspectors made some mistakes out there,” Gillian said in a December interview.
Commissioner Mike Curry, who oversees the building department, would not comment on whether he ever sought an explanation from his staff on how the restaurant’s project strayed from the approved drawings. He said he was not aware of any speculation that the mayor may have intervened.
Teets, the new director of the building department, said he was never asked by the mayor or anyone else to turn a blind eye.
The village council is expected to decide in January whether additional zoning relief made necessary by changes to the construction should be granted. Already this month, the zoning board of appeals voted 3-2 to recommend against granting the relief. A likely sidebar to the council’s upcoming debate made waves during the zoning board’s hearing when differing opinions were offered on whether the building that stands bears any resemblance to the cinderblock construction originally proposed.
When council members voted in July to allow the beer garden, they specifically required that the work be “in substantial conformance with the plan.” Tellalian said the project does not meet that standard, so any new drawings must be voted on by the council.
“It’s certainly not within the mayor’s power to approve plans that are not in conformance with the original plans,” Tellalian said.
Calderone, however, said the building that exists today is very similar to what was originally presented. Removing the windows, he said, makes the design and the execution almost identical. That the cinderblock walls were replaced with wood frames, and electricity and plumbing added, is irrelevant.
“Other than a flat roof versus a pitched roof, if you pulled the windows out it is substantially in compliance with the drawings,” Calderone said.