Architect John Schiess threw a curveball at the Plan Commission meeting on Aug. 3, amending submitted documents to lop nearly 14 feet off the proposed townhomes at 7428 Franklin St. The original height of three planned townhomes was 49 feet and 6 inches, well under the allowable 60 feet in the R3 district. The amended height will be only 36 feet.
Schiess said the new plan, with a flat rather than peaked roof, will more closely resemble the project at 233 Desplaines Ave., a project by the same developer, and is an effort to satisfy neighbors including Thomas Kovac, who owns a single-family home directly west of the proposed townhomes and who is staunchly opposed to the project.
The site plan, with the amended building height, garnered unanimous Plan Commission approval from the three members present: Chair Paul Barbahen and board members Marcia East and Diane Brown. It will go to the village council for approval.
In the days leading up to the meeting, Kovac, who is in a legal dispute with the village of Forest Park over a 2015 Farmington Foods expansion and who actively spoke out against a similar project at the same location in August 2019, sent emails to village staff and Plan Commission members detailing his objections to the project.
His primary objection is that the original proposed building height of the development would be almost 50 feet, approximately double the height of the unoccupied house currently on the property. An avid gardener and someone who regularly enjoys his back deck, his concerns centered around the fact that the new structure would loom above his home, blocking sun, and would cause issues at night when light from the townhome windows would shine down onto his property.
Kovac invited the Review to see his back yard, and it was obvious that he has spent a lot of time and care designing and caring for his outdoor living space, which features a shade garden, an outside entertainment area, and a back porch where Kovac said he enjoys about 150 days out of the year. The new townhomes, he said, would only be 23 feet from his back porch.
At the meeting Kovac said, “My back porch is a major part of my life, as is my side garden.”
Kovac’s lawyer, Tim Buckley, spoke at the meeting as well, urging the commission to defer the vote until the next meeting since the plans had been changed significantly, without time for proper review. But he said that even with the reduced height, the new structure “will still be incompatible with Kovac’s property.”
“This will be an absolute nightmare for [Kovac],” Buckley said.
Schiess said, “I’m sympathetic that [Kovac] enjoys the view. But by zoning right, someone could construct a 60-foot structure there,” much higher than both the original and newly amended project Schiess represents.
The new townhome project meets all zoning requirements for the R3 district, and the developers are asking for no variances. However, Buckley and Kovac several times referenced village site plan code that specifies a new project must be “in harmony with surrounding properties” and that “adequate provision shall be made to ensure the compatibility of the proposed development, including mass, scale, site layout and site design with the character of the surrounding property and the neighborhood.”
This project, they said, would be neither harmonious nor compatible with the other nearby properties.
The irony of the situation is that few of the properties on the block actually conform to code. According to R3 zoning restrictions, single family homes, such as Kovac’s, and multifamily buildings, and there are several, are considered nonconforming.
Barbahen pointed out that very irony. “We have a noncomplying property complaining about a complying project,” he said. He gave credit to the developer and architect, stating that it’s not easy to take 14 feet off a project. And he said that when Kovac purchased the property, in August 2011, the current zoning code was already in place, so Kovac assumed the risk that someone could put up townhomes next door. Barbahen said that the R3 code has been in place and unchanged for at least 20 years.
“There was no concealment [on the part of the developers] and generous accommodations have been made on height,” Barbahen said. “I have no objection to this.”
In 2019, the same developer of this project, David Northey of Gordon Jones LLC, proposed a similar project at the location. Instead of townhomes or rowhomes, which are permitted in the R3 district, this was a multifamily structure and not permitted at that location.
Kovac suggested that Director of Public Health and Safety Steve Glinke and Village Administrator Tim Gillian attempted to rewrite village code specifically for the developer at that time by putting forth an ordinance to amend the zoning in the R3 district to allow both single family homes and multi-family structures. The amendment was never voted on, however, because newly elected Mayor Rory Hoskins said he wanted more time for himself and two new commissioners to become more familiar with zoning code, so that zoning change and several others proposed at the time were not discussed.
Glinke said on Aug. 3 that it’s not unusual for the village to amend code when the need arises. New construction and projects often prompt zoning changes, he said. He added that the village has considered a wholesale rewrite of all village code, but it’s been cost prohibitive and in Forest Park, there’s “not a lot of uniformity in the housing stock.”
“We address things as they come up,” said Glinke. As for the original project, when the zoning change fell through, the developer “went back to the drawing board” to come up with a project that fit the original zoning of the R3 district.
The Franklin Street townhome project will go to a vote by the village council. The project consists of three three-story townhomes, each with three bedrooms and 2.5 baths. The entire ground floor will be living space, with the bedrooms on the upper levels. There will also be a single-story garage as well as three additional outdoor parking spaces near the alley.