Updated Feb. 28 1:00 p.m.

A wedding pavilion? Sculpture garden? Private paddle-tennis club? 7-Eleven? Residents of Forest Park brought their ideas for the village-owned property behind the Altenheim retirement community to a standing-room only town-hall meeting at Village Hall Feb. 23. Also discussed was the village-owned burnt-out two flat at 512 Desplaines, across from Village Hall.

Some 60 people attended the meeting, including all of the elected commissioners as well as former Public Property Commissioner Marty Tellalian, Jennifer Wolfe from the village’s Recreation Board and board members of the Forest Park Historical Society.

Public Properties Commissioner Chris Harris organized the informational meeting, the majority of which was spent discussing the Altenheim property. Harris said he wanted to explore options before the village sold the land to Fenwick High School for a sports facility. He spoke of “saving the land for the citizens of Forest Park.”

Harris proposed a sculpture garden similar to the Skokie North Shore Sculpture Park, a public garden created in the late 1980s on land owned by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District.

Wolfe, president of the rec board, presented renderings of a landscaped park space and a wedding pavilion which could be rented out by the village for “up to $10,000.” She also proposed the forming of a not-for-profit foundation that could assist with the upkeep and costs of a public space.

“Let’s dream all this together and make it really happen,” she said.

But Altenheim resident Amber Ladeira said that ambulances arrive at the residence at any time and sometimes use the entrance facing the chapel. Former Commissioner Marty Tellalian said after the meeting that the chapel was deemed too derelict to rehab economically.

Mayor Anthony Calderone gave a recap of the property’s history: Purchased by the village for $3.6 million in 2001, the village averted a sale to private residential developers Cambridge Homes.

The land includes 11 acres to the north and south of the Altenheim residence and includes some outbuildings, including the chapel. Calderone has said that the property to the north is designated to remain green space, where the farmers market is held during the summer and other community events are staged.

“When we bought the property we knew 11 acres of green space is not going to present itself again,” he said. “We decided that if the right development came along we would know it.” A three-year negotiation with the West Cook YMCA for purchase of the spot fell through. “[The YMCA] lost earnest money,” when the deal collapsed.

Fenwick approached the village two years ago, to buy the property for athletic fields and potentially a stadium or sports complex, said Calderone.

“They go back to their board of directors [during negotiations] and logistically it takes a lot of time.” Calderone said Fenwick has not yet suggested a purchase price. “[The property] it not listed, it has never been on the market… we are not in a hurry…. “

He later said, “We have no obligation to Fenwick. Zero.”

Calderone said if a deal between Fenwick was hammered out there would be at least four public meetings where residents could offer input. “The proposal would have to [pass through] the Zoning Board, the Plan Commission and at least two village council meetings,” he said.

Miles Harris, who is not related to Commissioner Harris, presented a proposal for developing a small portion of the land for private heated and lighted paddle tennis courts, warming hut and a small parking lot. Harris asked the village to donate the land and saying that paddle tennis, a winter sport, was gaining in popularity and would have a regional draw that would bring out-of-towners to Forest Park who might then spend money in town. The cost for membership in the private club would be $200-$300, he said.

Audience members suggested a green woodland focused on encouraging children’s unrestricted play and an official trailhead for the Illinois Prairie Path. Some audience members pointed out that a sale to Fenwick would be a one-time revenue boost, since the school is non-profit and would not pay property taxes. An audience member pointed out that the land is a water table that absorbs rainwater and that, if developed could possibly lead to more local flooding. One resident said, “We don’t want to wake up one morning and find out that it’s been sold to Fenwick.”

Joe Ponsetto, who lives in the Residences at the Grove asked if a convenience store could be built.

“I’d love to be able to walk across the street to the 7-Eleven or something instead of getting in the car [for small items]. Some of us are more urban and wouldn’t mind something like that.”

Commissioner Mark Hosty said that the Altenheim institution would have to be consulted if a commercial use were considered. He also commented that by buying the property, the village gave a financial boost to Altenheim that kept the home viable. In suggesting there should be some give and take by the Altenheim about any potential plan, he said, “Without the village, Altenheim wouldn’t exist.”

Calderone, Harris and many audience members agreed that a survey of village residents should be taken to gauge what Forest Parkers want for the property.

Over 21 years, the village will have paid $5 million for the Altenheim property, Calderone emailed, after the meeting. The final payment will be made in about 10 years, officials said. Harris said that a recent appraisal of the land, at recession era-post-boom prices was around $1.7 million. “I wouldn’t give it away at that price,” he said.

“I’m not interested in selling it for less than we paid for it,” said Calderone.

512 Desplaines Conversation turned to the 512 Desplaines building with Calderone suggesting that the building, if rehabbed, could house both the Historical Society of Forest Park and the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce. He said that Village Administrator Tim Gillian has been tasked with getting contractor quotes for rehabbing the building. The two-flat was seriously damaged by arson two years ago. Since that time the roof has collapsed. “There may be water damage on the [plaster] walls,” said Calderone. “I haven’t been in the building.”

Historical Society Treasurer and village official, Sally Cody said the society has also looked at Post Office building (417 Desplaines Ave.) and St. Peter’s church (500 Hannah St.) for a permanent home.

Karen Childs, vice president of the Forest Park Public Library Board, read a statement requesting that the two-flat property be razed and used for library parking. She said the library predicts they will have 170,000 visitors this year and that parking is insufficient. Audience members suggested using green building methods to rehab the building.

“Until we get a dollar amount [on the rehab] we really don’t know,” said Calderone.

After the meeting, Harris said a resident called it “cathartic and helpful.” He said in an email that he would hold the Village Council to a “gentlemen’s agreement” to survey residents about their vision for the properties.

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...