You’ll be delighted to know that zoning and building codes are core elements of a Comprehensive Plan (CP) and you yourself will be asked to weigh in on the same stubborn housing problems our village has struggled with for at least 40 years.

I doubt there is one person who, given the choice, wouldn’t simply delete the insanity/inanity of last decade’s residential zoning fiasco from our history, not to mention the lawyer$ and consultant$, of course. The best we can hope for is to identify and learn from our mistakes.

For most of its history, Forest Park appears to have simply avoided zoning as a municipal tool to regulate where and how housing was built. Our modern milestones in zoning and building code improvements took place in 1959, 1968 and 1998.

1959 changes were probably triggered by the Ike dislocations, but the ban on new coach houses is its claim to fame. In 1968, we adopted changes mainly to stop developers-gone-wild high rises and their 6- to 12-flats from being built on inappropriate lots.

Our 1998 zoning changes, ostensibly, directed over-enthusiastic developers to provide more green space for all new housing and, finally and significantly, the village banned future single family home conversions to 2- and 3-flats. At least that’s how Building Dept. Director Tom Murphy explained the changes to us at the time. (FP Review 3/11/98 and 5/6/98).

The 2001 Comprehensive Plan was conceived to offer desperately needed legal heft to our zoning and building codes. So far, so good.

But then various village brainiacs (CP founders, investors, Main Streeters, lenders, village officials) decided to:

  • Eliminate existing 2- and 3-flats (over time, of course) via the CP
  • Have the village stealthily “re-interpret” the 1998 code to support this notion, and as a result
  • Everything went to hell in a hand basket.

Our electeds never had the political will to enforce the cruel code they adopted. It turns out voters and friends don’t like it when their homes and investments are targeted for destruction, so out of the mountain of requests for a zoning variance that came before the village council, only a handful were denied.

The council walked back this policy in 2010, sort of, when lenders on some of these properties strongly suggested that our zoning code was nuts and they would let the properties rot before they would rebuild a century of our negligence with their money.

Finally, the bankers called their bluff. This 12-year flight-of-fancy cost Forest Park taxpayers a fortune.

Moving forward.

The 40-year-old problems we attempted to solve in 2001 are the same issues we face today, namely:

  • To find a healthy balance of owner-occupied properties vs. rental properties to help ensure a vibrant and stable community, via legal and effective means.
  • To enforce our building code so all our housing is safe and maintained.
  • To rid the village of severely substandard housing by bringing it up to code or destroying it.

I believe we all appreciate that these issues are extremely complex, stubborn and difficult to resolve.

The village asserts that its legal opportunity to demand building code compliance occurs when a property is about to be sold and the village inspection occurs. Below is a snapshot of our housing sales since 1998.

That’s a lot of legal opportunity and should mean well over half of our housing stock complies with building and safety code. But we all know this is not the case.

Village Administrator Tim Gillian emphasizes three things the village is asking from the consultancy they choose to create our new Comprehensive Plan.

Evaluate the old CP to have a clear idea of its value.

Twenty percent of grant funding must be spent on engaging stakeholders to gather meaningful input from residents.

Each of us must recognize the important role we play in this process and get involved.

I wonder if our mantra that “Forest Park is a single-family town” leads us to poor solutions; certainly the census data doesn’t support that as only 25 percent of our housing is single family.

We were delighted and proud to be called “the Bucktown of the Western suburbs,” but Bucktown is not a predominantly single-family neighborhood. I believe its success came about by embracing what existed and building on that foundation.