The Harrison Street apartment project discussion was continued once more, this time to July 6 at 7 p.m., giving village staff and plan commissioners an opportunity to come up with more specific guidance for the developer, 7400-7412 Harrison Street Properties LLC.
The original meeting was held in March, with a continuation scheduled for May, but a Comcast outage prevented the May meeting, which would have been held via Zoom.
After the March meeting, the developers came up with new plans that reduced the unit count from 57 apartments to 48 to address residents’ concerns about density, parking and traffic and included more information about traffic and green initiatives.
But plan commissioners and residents were still not satisfied, insisting that the project remains too big, the developers didn’t make enough changes to the original proposal, and saying there are still outstanding questions and issues.
Developer Tim Loucopoulos expressed frustration, saying that more specific guidance would go a long way in terms of him further amending the plans and knowing if additional decreases in units would even be financially feasible for him. He said he reduced the unit number, which increased the parking ratio, but if that’s still not good enough for the plan commission and residents, stronger direction on what they’re looking for is necessary.
In July, the commission will meet to develop more specific direction for the developers. During the June meeting, several issues were discussed.
In terms of aesthetics, it was plan commissioner and architect Scott Whitebone who came down hard on the design of the project. Although he had expressed similar concerns at the previous meeting, this time he was more direct in sharing his dissatisfaction with the look of the building.
“I don’t suggest that you have to … look traditional,” Whitebone said. “I don’t think you have to have brick. You don’t have to have a cornice … I mean, I appreciate, for example, what you’re trying to do with the sort of cloud design at the base. I don’t think that works with the existing neighborhood.” He added that some of the “pops of color and some of the stripes” on the outside of the building “will not look contemporary in a few years.”
His advice to the developer and architect was to “back up and look at the overall context.” He said, “That may help you arrive at a design that works a little better.”
Loucopoulos expressed frustration, however, stating although they aren’t tied to the current design, the look and feel of a building are largely based on opinion. “What would be right? What is wrong? That’s the part I struggle with,” Loucopoulos said. “Would there be a committee? Would you guys want to review different alternatives? And then pick one?”
Forest Park does not have an architectural review board, and aesthetics isn’t directly within the scope of what the plan commission oversees.
During the meeting Courtney Kashima, the village’s planning consultant, spoke about that, stating, “We talked about this in March, that the purview here is zoning matters, in particular the plan development standards. And yes, we can have a discussion about does architecture, including materials … affect some of the standards, but the bottom line is, this board in particular is not an architectural review committee and Forest Park does not have one.”
Still, the developer has been asked to provide contextual drawings of how the building would look within the current neighborhood.
A concern raised several times at the meeting was the developer’s proposal that the portion of Thomas Avenue between Harrison Street and the public alleyway would allow two-way traffic, which, according to their plans, would “drastically reduce the number of vehicles who would otherwise use the public alley for access to the parking garage when coming off Harrison Street.”
Commissioner Diane Brown said she thought it was “a good idea” to have Thomas Avenue run both ways between Harrison Street and the alley, but her concern was that people would begin to drive the entire block in the wrong direction. A berm, she suggested, might prevent that problem.
The developers added a designated drop-off and delivery zone near the main entry door to help maintain the proper flow of traffic along Harrison Street, thus alleviating concerns about deliveries of packages and drop-offs and pick-ups of residents by ride-share vehicles blocking traffic.
Traffic studies continued to be an issue at the meeting, as those presented in previous meetings had been criticized for not gathering current data. Done during the COVID-19 pandemic, traffic patterns may not have been typical and wouldn’t represent non-pandemic use of the nearby streets. Residents and plan commissioners also questioned whether it is fair to look at the original uses of the now-defunct buildings and the traffic they would have generated in comparing potential traffic from the new apartments.
The developer clarified, however, that the traffic studies were done in 2018, when the lounge was still open at certain times, although the restaurant was closed then. Additionally, he said, with the auto repair shop being eliminated, associated traffic from that establishment would no longer be an issue.
“This development is substantially less traffic than the lounge, the restaurant and the auto repair if we put those back into life,” Loucopoulos said.
The plan commission asked that traffic from the Roos Recreation Center, which is across the street and opened in 2018, also be considered.
The developers have asserted that an underground water storage system would decrease flooding in the area, even with the addition of 48 new units with sinks and showers and toilets contributing to water flow.
As an engineer from Eriksson Engineering explained, there is a difference between dry weather flow and the runoff from a stormwater event. Dry weather flow is wastewater that is flushed or leaves apartments through the plumbing system. It isn’t the dry weather flow that creates flooding in residential neighborhoods like Forest Park, said the engineer; it’s stormwater that does that.
The development includes an underground water storage tank that would retain water during a storm, and then, when full, slowly dissipate that water out until the soil is saturated. At that point, saturation and flooding could occur. But, said the architect, that proposed maximum discharge is still less than as the site currently exists, without any underground water storage to mitigate effects of heavy rainfall.
Whitebone asked whether the developers had considered affordable housing, an issue that has been raised previously.
Loucopoulos said with needing to scale down the project, it would be difficult for him to integrate affordable units while still keeping the development economically feasible.
“We are not against affordable housing; we are all for it,” Loucopoulos said. “But we took down the unit count, [and] the project has to make sense financially … I’m going to say it would be very difficult to put affordable housing in this project as it stands now, without a higher unit count. Typically, the way you do that is you increase your unit count, and then you add affordable housing. But we went the other way, we’re reducing the unit count to basically where we think we can still make this project work.”
Forest Park, however, does not have a problem with affordability of housing stock. State law under the Affordable Housing Planning and Appeal Act requires that cities in Illinois with at least 1,000 residents and less than 10 percent affordable housing submit a plan to the state on how they will increase affordable properties within their boundaries. According to the Illinois Housing Development Authority, 49.1 percent of Forest Park’s housing stock is considered affordable by the standard definition, said Kashima.
What constitutes “affordable?” According to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), given an area’s median income, people don’t need to spend more than 30 percent of their income for housing.
Timing and construction
If approved, Loucopoulos said he doesn’t think they would break ground this year, because financing still needs to be put into place, and materials are difficult to obtain right now. Another project, he said, is on hold because they can’t find appliances for the units. “Next year, we think the tightening of the supplies will have dissipated,” he said.
In terms of staging of the work, he said he’s worked on a lot of lot-line to lot-line projects, and he anticipates beginning work in the back, where staging and storage will happen. The site will be fenced off, and he said he doesn’t anticipate needing to block off the sidewalk.
Size and density
Overwhelmingly, plan commissioners and residents still felt that the proposed building is too big and would add too many residents to the block.
“I think everybody’s loathe to say it, but I’ll go ahead and say it,” said Brown. “I still believe it’s far too dense.” She added that she understood that economic feasibility of a project is based on the unit count. “And so I understand you’re trying to maximize the space, but I think that’s part of the problem. So I would like to see less density,” Brown said.