Restaurants with fountains. A boutique hotel. A car dealership. A private sports facility. Bring back Kiddieland!
The ideas ranged from the tax-generating to the whimsical at a meeting Monday held by Forest Park officials and neighbors to discuss potential development of the Army Reserve Center, should the site ever become available.
“This is a planning process to build a template about what we might like to see at the site,” said Mayor Anthony Calderone. Calderone said he wanted input from planning and zoning professionals as well as stakeholders in the neighborhood. “This is wishful thinking. We want to be wishful. This property won’t be available tomorrow or in the near future for that matter,” he said.
The Forest Park Plan Commission, Zoning Board, Village Council and a couple of neighbors discussed the 7.5 acre site at 7410 Roosevelt Rd., formerly owned by the Navy and transferred to the Army in 2006. This was the second of three meetings financed by a grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. Planning consultants from Land Vision, LLC in Chicago presented renderings of four plans for the site.
The village also has its eye on the much larger 45-acre U.S. Post Office Bulk Mail site south of the Army facility. As the U.S.P.O. consolidates to save money, some or all of the bulk mail site may be sold off. For that reason, zoning and planning officials stressed that anything built on the Army site should be designed to lead into a larger development, possibly with homes, office buildings or parkland.
“Can we bring back Kiddieland?” joked one participant. The Bulk Mail site once held an amusement park, as well as a race track.
Presenters pointed out that the Roosevelt Road TIF district funds would be available to assist with development. Michele Kitch of KPMG, LLP in Chicago, an audit and tax firm, suggested that Illinois Enterprise Zone funds might be available for the project and that the zone funds helped villages offer incentives to businesses over 30 years.
The four plans presented were: a strip mall type configuration of inline small shops, a mid-sized big-box retail store with other shops beside it, a car dealership and a small hotel. All of the renderings featured lush landscaping. A private recreation facility was determined to be too large for the site, so consultants didn’t make up a plan for it.
The landscaping and architectural elements of the buildings were decidedly more upscale than the industrial businesses to the east on Hannah Avenue or at the nearby Forest Park Plaza.
“The development exceeds the look and feel of the mall. It might almost embarrass [mall owners] into cleaning up their building,” said Commissioner Mark Hosty.
The Forest Park Plaza was converted from a Amatorp World War II torpedo factory, said Calderone. “Structurally, [the factory] was very challenging to renovate for the owners of the mall. It is significantly different from what was there.”
Neighbor Joe Guarnery, of the 1200 block of Marengo, said he lived “two blocks east of the property.” He added, “The things that are important to me are quality of life, having a place that contributes to me wanting to live here and helps my property values. I like the tone set with the landscaping.” He said walkability was important.
One participant suggested using TIF funds to give the mall a facelift by extending lush landscaping all the way west across the front of the Forest Park Plaza, since parking lots were rarely full.
Calderone pointed out that village didn’t need to limit itself to a single idea.
Participants commented freely on the four concepts. Of the strip mall, one said, “I don’t know if we need another T-Mobile or Cash for Gold,” generating laughter.
Mid-box retail shops are becoming rarer, said Chuck Hanlon of Land Vision. “Mid-box, big-box, they’re all going away.”
The car dealership plan was also criticized. Although car dealerships generate lots of sales taxes for the village, the proximity of other dealerships, such as Jeep, Chevy, Dodge and Ford on Cermak Avenue in North Riverside and Volvo in Oak Park eliminated many options, said Calderone. One possibility was Volkswagen, which formerly had a dealership in the area. Other participants pointed out that car dealers were “vacating” the Oak Park and River Forest area and that if the anchor tenant left, a vacant car lot is very hard to redevelop and becomes an eyesore.
The boutique hotel seemed to generate the most enthusiasm among participants. People pointed out that the access to the expressway and lack of neighboring mid-upscale lodging would help the hotel succeed. Local demand for banquet facilities and meeting space would also help the potential hotel. The hotel could also build upward, said Hanlon, taking advantage of the small footprint of the site. Hotel chains such as Hyatt or Marriott were suggested. “There’s no place to stay here,” said one participant, adding that out-of-town relatives often stay in Brookfield, Hillside or Countryside.
However, run-down neighboring properties were perceived as a possible deterrent to a hotel. The site would be situated between Ultra Foods and the industrial buildings on Hannah Avenue.
The “mixed-use” plan also drew a range of ideas including residential, shops and professional office space. Commissioner Tom Mannix said the Lake Forest town center was a good model for walkable mixed-use space.
A one-acre storm-water retention area was included in the planning. “Storm water control is mandated by the Municipal Water Reclamation District,” said Hanlon. Participants encouraged planners to be creative with the space, including a possible fountain for outdoor restaurants, possible mini sports fields, an entryway into the potential bigger development to the south and even an outdoor community theater.