Several members of the village council directly shot down the notion that secret plans for the Altenheim property exist during the Jan. 25 village council meeting.
“There’s no cloak and dagger conspiracy,” Commissioner Ryan Nero said in a conversation leading to a unanimous vote on accepting the intergovernmental agreement (IGA) between the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) and the village for $750,000 to demolish the decrepit Altenheim buildings.
Mayor Rory Hoskins and Village Administrator Tim Gillian also stated unequivocally that no secret plans are being made.
“There’s a group trying to suggest that the mayor and this council already know what they’re going to do with that property. And that’s just flat-out false,” Gillian said. “I wish we had that kind of a crystal ball.”
Hoskins agreed, stating that simply because he has a meeting with the nearby CTA, for example, doesn’t mean that anything is automatically going to happen.
“It’s just a question of starting the process,” Hoskins said. “There’s no done deal as to what potentially could go into the Altenheim. But until these hazardous buildings come down, it’s really hard to do anything with the property.”
Based on what he’s heard, said Nero, there are no plans for any particular development on the property.
“So rest assured, all those residents who are listening in or talking or having discussions, there’s no cloak and dagger conspiracy behind the back as to what’s going on with this particular parcel of land, at least that I know,” Nero said. “It’s as simple as let’s get the money, let’s drop the buildings.”
The IGA for the grant was approved, but not without discussion about the single line relating to future use of the land. That line states that the village “will prepare the site for a future mix-use that will consist of residential, commercial, and green space, to be paid via other funding sources.”
But it’s that “caveat,” as Commissioner Jessica Voogd described it, that necessitated clarification. Voogd wanted to know if there was a timeline for that future development. Also, since the grant is for money to tear down specific structures, does the future development referenced in the IGA need to be on the area where those buildings existed? For example, could selling off the north end of the property, commonly known as The Grove, still be a possibility after signing the IGA?
Village Attorney Nick Peppers said the only timeline dictated in the IGA is two years for the village to complete the demolition, but nothing about the timing of future development is specified. And he said that future development does not have to be done on the spot of the demolished buildings.
Voogd also made it clear that economic development and green space aren’t mutually exclusive.
“Green space is economic development,” Voogd said. “It increases property values; it brings businesses and retains them. There are countless studies that I found and am happy to share with people about how making green space and parks and trails and all of these different things actually helps the community; it increases jobs, it creates revenue, it reduces municipal overhead. I mean, there’s so much economic value with green space.”
Peppers agreed, saying he thinks the specific terms of future development of the property may have been left open purposely for that exact reason. “Green space has a value,” he said.
Bids for the demolition will be opened on Jan. 27, and Commissioner Dan Novak questioned what would happen if the bids were above the grant value.
Peppers explained that since this is a reimbursement grant, the village can simply choose not to do the work. Village Engineer Jim Amelio said he felt confident that the bids would be competitive.
“We’ve had around 12 general contractors who are qualified and have met the pre-bid qualifications, so we feel optimistic that we’re going to get a lot of interest, which should give us very competitive numbers,” Amelio said. “Just knowing where the current market is, based on COVID, and people really looking for work, I would be optimistic that, you know, out of these 12 contractors, someone is going to be hungry, and be very aggressive in their submittal.”
A final outstanding issue on the IGA is an unchecked box regarding historical objects. Amelio said that relates to one or two engraved marble slabs on the property of the derelict buildings that will be maintained in a location to be determined. The village, he said, will follow through on the preservation.
The buildings coming down are a first step, Nero said, and although he assured residents that there’s nothing nefarious going on behind the scenes, any next steps should involve what he called “the customer.”
“I think that the important thing is to remember the voice of the customer, which is the village residents here,” Nero said. “Now I think the piece that’s going to be very crucial for the village of Forest Park, for this council, is the planning exercise.”
Rather than asking developers to look at the land and provide suggestions, he wants the village to be proactive in deciding what it wants and then go to developers and ask for feedback.
“I think it’s important for us, as council members of department heads and residents, to look at that 11 acres, to say what makes sense for the village of Forest Park,” Nero said. “And then we can turn that over to a developer and say, ‘Now tell me what we could do with that.’ That gives us options on preservation of greenspace development and all the rest of it.”
Peppers reminded the mayor and commissioners at one point that whatever ultimately happens on the Altehneim property will happen by council vote.
The idea that no decision about future use of the property could be made without the majority vote of the village council was brought up by Gillian too.
“You know that no single person can do anything by themselves,” Gillian said to the commissioners. “The mayor could say tomorrow, ‘Guess what, guys, we are going to build eight of the nine acres as houses [with] a one-acre park.’ It takes three of you folks to agree to that, and don’t ever forget that. You know, each of you has only one vote. So you all have a voice. That’s what you’re there for.”