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Following a final report by the National Park Service on possible uses for village-owned property near the Altenheim Retirement Home during the Nov. 13 village council meeting, Ralph DiFebo, chair of the ad hoc Cultural Park Committee, reiterated the group’s proposal that the north end of the Altenheim property be sold to help fund development of the park.

The Cultural Park Committee was formed in December 2016 and is headed by DiFebo, a resident who has been advocating development of the property since 2015.

This September, the group recommended to village officials that they consider selling a portion on the north end of the property to a developer and use the proceeds to retire outstanding debt; pay to demolish crumbling structures on the south end, including a chapel; and fund a feasibility study.

The committee also suggested that village officials create a tax increment financing (TIF) district along Madison and Van Buren and use proceeds for sidewalks and street improvements, including traffic signals where Van Buren intersects Desplaines and Madison. 

Mark Show, a member of the committee, stressed that the committee’s recommendations do not include additional parking, pointing out the proximity of the CTA parking lot. People also could ride bicycles to the property or park in the Maybrook parking lot and walk to the park, he added. 

The committee’s recommendation includes addressing flooding concerns by requiring any developer to provide a water retention system for the north and south portions of the property. The committee also recommended that the village sell the north end property parcel to a developer who could build either a condominium complex for those 55 and older or a hotel, noting a hotel would generate additional tax revenue. 

DiFebo and Show both emphasized that funds from the sale need to be earmarked for Cultural Park development and not just deposited into the village’s general fund. 

The committee, which has met six times since September 2017, welcomes a town hall meeting, according to DiFebo and Show.

“We want somebody to look at our assumptions,” DiFebo said. “We don’t want to force anything down anybody’s throat.”

Show concurred.

“We want to do it right the first time,” he said. “We want this to be a highlight of the village.”

DiFebo said the committee’s recommendations would allow the village to turn the south portion of the property into useable green space while funding the feasibility study.

“Once we get the feasibility study done, we can go out and get sponsors,” Show added.

The village purchased the property for $3.6 million in 2001, averting a sale to a private developer whose plans were to build townhomes. The property consists of 11 acres north and south of Altenheim and includes a chapel and other outbuildings, all of which are empty. At one point the West Cook YMCA in Oak Park targeted the site for a new facility but negotiations fell through. Fenwick High School in Oak Park also inquired about purchasing the property for a football field and other athletic fields.

National Park Service report

During his final report at the Nov. 13 council meeting, Mike Mencarini, a National Park Service representative, summarized input he received from residents and stakeholders regarding potential functions for the 11-acre property at Madison and Van Buren.

“There was never a meeting when nobody showed up,” said Mencarini. “There is a lot of optimism here. There are also a lot of concerns, but they are good concerns.

“The overwhelming message I received was there is an opportunity here, an opportunity for the village to do something for the community.”

He said the most common theme that emerged is the perception that Forest Park could benefit from additional open space. He noted that “several” stakeholders had emphasized that the proposed Cultural Park could be an opportunity to establish unstructured open space that allows flexibility for how the space is utilized. Mencarini also said “almost all” stakeholders were supportive of improved landscaping of the current site and establishing native plants and greenery that “transform the area into a more natural setting.” He added that several commented that increased wildlife habitat could give residents the opportunity to experience nature in the community.

According to Mencarini, the biggest concern among stakeholders was how to make the project a worthwhile amenity to the village as a whole while understanding that people currently reside in close proximity to the site. Regarding safety, he said the focus was on parking and traffic flow on Van Buren as well as the need to monitor any structures after dark. Mencarini also noted that the general sentiment was to make the space an amenity for everyone and meet Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements.

The first phase, held in the spring, involved meeting with 14 stakeholder organizations to solicit feedback, including the Forest Park Public Library, Homeowner Association for Residences at the Grove, Park District of Forest Park, and more. 

The second phase consisted of three stakeholder events and four public events, at which approximately 120 residents interacted with feedback posters and provided input on future proposals. Stakeholder events were held at Residences at the Grove and the Altenheim Senior Living Community; community events were held at the Forest Park Public Library and the Park District of Forest Park. 

Drawing the most positive responses from the second phase were a walking path, green space and benches/seating. Sixty-four people indicated they “very much” favored a walking path, 54 wanted green space and 46 favored benches. Also popular were wildlife habitat, ADA-compliant amenities, native plants/pollinators, bio-swales/rainwater retention, picnic tables, exercise/fitness path and community gardens. Drawing the most negative responses were parking, with 18 “not at all” responses and restrooms with 14 people against.  

During the council meeting, attended by several dozen residents, many from the Residences at the Grove, Mayor Anthony Calderone said Mencarini did a “stellar job.”

“It was a lengthy process and I realize it’s a tough challenge,” Calderone said. 

Mencarini’s report led Commissioner Joe Byrnes to suggest holding a town hall meeting. In making his suggestion, Byrnes proposed incorporating recommendations made by members of the resident-led Cultural Park Committee. 

“There’s a lot of information for us to absorb” in the report, Calderone said. He added, “We’ll hold a public meeting as soon as it’s practical.” Such a meeting is not likely until 2019.

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