Mayor Anthony Calderone vowed he would take no action on the village-owned 11 acres of open space behind the Altenheim retirement community until he had given the residents of Forest Park input on the fate of the parcel.

“Even if they come to me with a check to buy the property, I’m going to send them back to Fenwick until the residents of Forest Park have had an opportunity [to voice their opinions],” he told the village council meeting Monday night.

On the council agenda was a discussion of a stand-alone survey on the Altenheim property and the burnt-out 512 Desplaines building that was folded into a Request for Proposals for consultants on the village’s comprehensive plan.

Six residents spoke during public comment before the meeting in support of a village-wide survey on uses for the Altenheim property.

“I hope we’re all going to be civil tonight,” said regular council spectator and Altenheim resident Amber Ladiera.

The mayor began by saying he had originally thought the survey was a great idea after 100 residents came to a town hall to hear different proposals for the Altenheim property, including a convenience store, private paddle tennis facility and sculpture garden.

But after speaking with two spokeswomen from the comprehensive plan consultancy company, Wheaton-based Images Inc., the mayor said he was convinced a special survey was too hasty. He said the consultants told him that while developing the comprehensive plan, residents would be able to more clearly articulate and better imagine what they would like for the parcel as part of what he called a “gaining process.”

The Mayor also said that Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), a regional planning agency, thought a stand-alone survey about a specific piece (or pieces) of property in the village was better suited to the comprehensive plan process.

“I don’t know if HUD would pay for a stand-alone survey,” said Erin Aleman of CMAP. “Comprehensive plans always start with issues and opportunities for the future. They start with visioning. The plan would be a good way to get residents’ visions for the future.”

HUD granted the village of Forest Park $100,000 to pay for the plan.

The mayor put the question of the survey on the table for discussion at the meeting after saying earlier in the week that he thought the stand-alone survey was not going to get a real picture of the wishes of Forest Parkers.

“If the residents are asked in a stand-alone survey, they’ll be asked to respond in a myopic view rather than look at it in a grander scale,” he told the Forest Park Review last Thursday. “Right now people are looking at Altenheim with laser glasses, rather than the big picture. Their opinion may change once we’ve incorporated comments and suggestions and outlook from the comprehensive plan,” he said.

Response from the other commissioners to the mayor’s call for input was mixed.

Commissioner Mark Hosty said seeing the agenda item got him brainstorming about an even more exhaustive survey that should be sent out to villagers, which he called, “a report card about how we’re doing by department right now, not 10 years from now.”

The report card survey would assess residents’ impressions of fire and police response times, how the village deals with foreclosures and code enforcement, leaf and snow removal, the finances of the village, public property and any suggestions for change.

Commissioner Tom Mannix, said he favored a survey on both the uses of the Altenheim property and the perceived effectiveness of village commissioners. He referred to the survey as a “benchmark” that would give the comprehensive plan crafters more information to dig into Forest Park.

“We could use that as a guidebook – if 85 percent of residents want green space, then it serves us to provide better services to residents,” he said.

Mannix analyzes surveys for political campaigns through his company Dolfin Consulting. He said the typical survey could run between 30 and 45 questions and that 250-300 responses would be a statistically valid sample.

Public Property Commissioner Chris Harris, who has championed the survey since he held a town hall in February to discuss plans for the Altenheim space, said he liked the report card idea, but he also thought a survey on the parcel was important “as quickly as possible.” He and members of the Recreation Board canvassed participants at Rifest about their views. Earlier in the week, Harris accused the mayor of “backpedaling” by changing his mind about a survey. The two were cordial at the meeting, however.

Commissioner Rory Hoskins favored the public property survey and voted for it over the “report card” survey.

“I favor an immediate survey so that we can take immediate steps to dispose of Altenheim,” Hoskins wrote after the meeting. “The debt service is about $380,000 per year.”

“As for 512 Desplaines, we’d never permit a private owner to leave a burnt-out shell of a building standing for two years,” he said.

When the mayor announced “on the record” that he would not negotiate with Fenwick until the villagers had been polled, Commissioner Chris Harris asked if he would consider putting a sale moratorium to the council for a vote.

“I’d be open to that,” said Calderone. “I want the people of Forest Park to have more than ample time to weigh in on the Altenheim property.”

When all four of the commissioners expressed interest in some kind of survey, the mayor said he would bring up the discussion again, since “we don’t have consensus here.” He declined to give his own opinion, although on Thursday he told the Forest Park Review he opposed the public property survey.

After the meeting, the mayor spoke of the hazards of a survey to a group of citizens who had attended the council meeting.

“What if I held a survey and two of you voted for green space and two of you voted for a 7-Eleven? What should the village do then?”

He explained that the property was costing the village $32,000 per month in payments on a lease debt certificate, but “in a $22 million budget, that’s not a lot of money and it can be absorbed.” The loan has 10 more years before it is paid off.

In recent years, Fenwick High School has inquired about buying the parcel for athletic uses that range from simple playing fields to a “sports complex” with lights for night games.

Of Fenwick’s offer, which he said followed on the heels of the collapse of the YMCA deal in 2009, he said, “We never listed that property for sale and Fenwick called us. Now they want a football stadium and frankly that doesn’t excite me a lot.”

Jean Lotus

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...