The Forest Park Planning and Zoning Commission voted unanimously May 16 to recommend allowing the construction of a 6-story, 126,429 square foot U-Haul personal storage facility at 7209 Harrison Street, across the street from the existing rental and storage facility at 801 S. Harlem Ave.

U-Haul currently uses that lot, which is wedged between Harlem Avenue, CSX railroad tracks/Eisenhower Expressway, Harrison Street and the Ferrara Candy Company, 7301 Harrison St., to store trucks, and it used a 9,819 square foot, one-story building as the truck fueling and maintenance facility until February 2021. U-Haul officials framed it as a way to get a better use out of the property they describe as underutilized, creating 1,066 new storage units. Company representatives told the commission that it wouldn’t be the largest facility in the Chicago area, let alone in the state.

While the zoning commission recommended approval, they added a condition that required U-Haul to work with the village building department to figure out ways to add more greenery and aesthetically pleasing fencing on the Harlem Avenue side. As commission chair Marsha East put it, Harlem Avenue was Forest Park’s front door, and they wanted visitors to get a good impression. The village council is expected to vote on the proposal during one of its June meetings.

The building would go up at the northwest portion of the property, and the truck storage spaces will be moved to the east side, near Harlem Avenue. According to the proposal submitted to the village, the new facility would operate around the clock, and customers would need to use key cards to gain entry. The U-Haul traffic study estimates, based on experience with storage facilities of similar size, that the building would have an average of 36 “check-ins” per day, with up to 11 check-ins at the same time during the peak hours of operations. 

Rick Rottweiler, district vice president for U-Haul’s Chicago service area, said that they expect the construction to take around 15 months. 

Throughout the meeting, several zoning commissioners expressed concern about the impact on traffic, especially during construction, given that the trucks and construction equipment would need to use Harrison Street to enter the site. Rottweiler said that he would work with the contractor to minimize the impact, and he said that the new site layout will give trucks more room to maneuver. 

Resident Monica Berns said that, with the warehouse’s proximity to the Harlem Blue Line ‘L’ station, “where there’s a lot of homelessness and drug use,” and the presence of homeless encampments on the other side of the expressway, would mean that some of those individuals would “tailgate” – that is, follow people who swipe in. She was worried that this would create safety issues and “destroy” the building restrooms.

Rottweiler said every door in the building requires the key card, they have multiple security cameras and a system in place that will raise alarms if someone stays for more than two hours. There are also call boxes on each floor. 

“We take our security very seriously,” he said.

However, Rottweiler said that, aside from the U-Haul store employee on site during the day and maintenance staff, the security system is monitored remotely at night.

East said that she supported fencing off the site – otherwise, people would cut through the parking lot – she wanted something better than a simple chain-link fence.

“You have to realize — this is an entrance to Forest Park, and this is an opportunity to showcase yourself,” she said. “Right now, you encase yourself in asphalt, and it isn’t warm, it isn’t inviting.”

Buildings department director Steve Glinke said the strip of greenery on the Harlem Avenue side belongs to Cook County, which goes back to the expressway construction, so both U-Haul and the village have no say over what happens to it. But they would still have control over what happens to the fencing closer to the intersection, and on the Harrison side.

Benjamin Shock, U-Haul’s head of marketing for the Chicago area, said that the company was receptive to the idea of improving fencing and potentially adding greenery, since, as a company whose business involves helping people move, they appreciated the value of being welcoming.

“We understand all of those concerns, we really do, we want to make this work for everybody,” Rottweiler added.