At a presentation to the Forest Park Village Council, Monday, commissioners criticized the consultants who brought them a 156-page comprehensive plan. 

Commissioners Tom Mannix, Chris Harris and Rory Hoskins said consultants from Images Inc. failed to reach out to enough residents, took too long between meetings, lost the momentum of the project during a leadership change and made zoning recommendations that increased dense housing in one area while forcing single-family zoning on multi-unit neighborhoods.

Mannix was the most critical, saying Images had not lived up to promises of civic engagement. Only 274 people, or 1.9 percent of the village’s population, participated in the community survey posted online in January.  

“There was an extraordinarily lackluster participation in the survey,” said Mannix, who reminded Images representatives that he had specifically asked for a promise that there would be community outreach. 

Commissioners were not impressed with the “word on the street” campaign, where Images staff allegedly visited Forest Park many times and asked residents to pose for a photograph with a single word written on a sign, such as “friendly.”  The photos are sprinkled through the plan document. 

“Holding up pieces of paper with words, that looked like my sixth-grade nephew’s civics project,” Harris said.

Mannix asked consultant Janet Henderson why the steering committee took nine months between meetings, and why participation dropped from 38 members to 16. He also asked if the steering committee had input and approval of the community survey before it went out.

“How involved was the steering committee in this process?” he asked. “I may pick up the phone and call some of them and ask how satisfied they were with this process.”

Mayor Anthony Calderone suggested that some steering committee members came with a “motive” and “when they saw this isn’t going to achieve their motive, they backed out.” 

Anyone could participate in the steering committee, he said. He wondered why steering committee members didn’t complain at the plan commission meetings if they thought the work by Images was “sub par.”

But Mannix said what he saw was “the difference between being disenchanted versus being disenfranchised.” He asked Images to explain why the timing of the project was so erratic and asked the company to provide an executive summary by Dec. 15.

Harris said he thought the project went adrift after lead consultant Carrie Hansen jumped to a competitor. After that, he said, the project was “left rudderless” and “in complete disarray.” 

“I’m not sure the best job was done,” he added.

Commissioners praised Village Administrator Tim Gillian and Village Planner JoEllen Charlton and their work on the plan. Commissioner Mark Hosty wondered whether village staff did the bulk of the work. 

Discussion also centered on the plan’s recommendation to upgrade zoning in the central parts of town to R1 and R2 residential and to create high-density zoning on Harlem Avenue for “transit-oriented housing.”

The plan’s first recommendation is to “update the Zoning Ordinance to maintain consistency with the new Comprehensive Plan” and to “conduct review of properties and amend zoning as necessary and appropriate.” Those two recommendations are categorized as “priority one,” to be undertaken within the next five years [p. 114].

Harris said multi-family units would be classified as “legal non-conforming” which might interfere with a buyer’s ability to secure a mortgage, or an owner’s ability to change the property.

Consultant Jan Ward said planning for land use was not the same as zoning. “Zoning regulations determine the use-for-the-use,” she said. “The zoning change doesn’t change where people are right now.” She gave an example that in a fire or natural disaster, multi-family buildings would need to be rebuilt as single-family homes and coach houses wouldn’t be rebuilt. Ward said there would always be an opportunity for homeowners to request “conditional uses or modified uses.” 

Calderone brushed off concerns about problems with legal non-conforming properties saying they hadn’t been a problem in the past.

“People get excited when they hear ‘legal non-conforming,'” he said. “But I can’t think of one instance when it harmed a property owner, not one instance.” 

Rory Hoskins said several regional land-use agencies had come to Forest Park recommending multi-family, high-density buildings near the Blue Line. The Images plan calls for commercial and high-density zoning along Harlem Avenue, increasing the amount of multi-unit housing in town, he pointed out. That contradicted the residents’ stated desire for fewer multi-unit properties.

Harris also questioned the contradiction of the residents’ desires for the Altenheim property. 

Images altered the draft last week to acknowledge most residents surveyed wanted green space. But a “market analysis” conducted by a Chicago planner known for senior housing recommended the land be sold to developers for either empty-nester townhomes, one-story single-family houses or low-income senior housing.

“You never suggested a public-private partnership to create green space,” Harris said. Ward said the sales covenant with the Altenheim limited use to R1 and R2 zoning only.

It was unclear whether Ward knew Forest Park had been in negotiations with the West Cook YMCA in 2004 to buy the land for a $20 million new facility. That would have been a use outside the residential zoning covenant. The deal fell through in 2008. Harris asked her point blank, but she only said she was “aware of the history.”

Calderone clarified at the time the Altenheim board signed off on the proposed YMCA use and that’s why the non-residential use had been allowed. He added that getting citizens to participate in projects like these was not easy, remembering similar citizen apathy in 2001 during the prior comprehensive plan.

He also said potential new land uses upset some property owners. 

“We went through a lot of similar drama,” Calderone said. In 2001 property owners south of Madison Street were alarmed to see their properties listed as potential parking lot sites. One house, he noted, had been offered to the village for sale several years later and demolished for a parking lot. 

“This is 2014 and we never did take anybody’s home.”

Of the comprehensive plan overall, he said, “It’s a plan. It’s a wish list; that’s what it is. Keep in mind this is just a plan. These things are not etched in stone.”

The plan was paid for by the federal government as part of a Sustainable Communities Challenge Grant, offered through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). 

Images Inc. is being paid $100,000 for developing the plan.

The village council will vote on approving the plan at their Dec. 15 meeting.

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...

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