The latest meeting of the Forest Park Altenheim Committee saw three groups of stakeholders arguing in favor of the Altenheim site redevelopment plan that includes some kind of open-space component — with Forest Park firefighters arguing for something that would bring in more revenue through property and sales taxes in order to fund public safety. 

Most of the Dec. 3 meeting featured a presentation on the zoning issues surrounding the village-owned portion of the site, presentations from two stakeholders — the Altenheim retirement community itself and the Grove condominiums east of the site. Also Ralph DiFebo, who chaired the ad hoc Altenheim committee, the current committee’s predecessor, gave a presentation on why his group recommended using the site as a public park and event space. 

A group of Forest Park firefighters and police officers attended the meeting and Lt. BJ Reid argued that the village should focus on generating funding to help address the staffing shortfalls and deferred maintenance backlog. Any development in Forest Park, he argued, should prioritize generating tax revenue.

DiFebo was originally supposed to give his presentation on June 14, 2021, when his committee was still active. At the time, Mayor Rory Hoskins said he wanted to see presentations from other interested parties. Since then, the committee was disbanded and the Altenheim Committee was assembled in its place to look at all of the past site proposals, get community input, and develop a recommended redevelopment concept.

Committee Chair Marty Tellalian gave an overview of the site zoning, explaining that, while the entire property is zoned R-3, which allows mid-rise housing, the covenant included in the sale of the property restricted the residential, open space and office uses permitted under smaller-scale R-1 and R-2 zoning. It also required that “such use will not interfere with the reasonable, quiet enjoyment” of Altenheim residents. 

Tellalian said the village would most likely rezone the property to Planned Unit Development, which would allow for some deviation from the zoning requirements while also giving Forest Park more control over what goes up on the property. The Grove was built under a PUD. 

In his presentation later during the meeting, DiFebo mentioned in his presentation that the covenant conflicts with one of the conditions of the $750,000 Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity grant the village got to help cover demolition costs and called for the property to be redeveloped as “mixed use that will consist of residential, commercial and green space.”  

Committee member Mark Zinni, who has also sat on the Altenheim governing board for the past five years, said the Altenheim board was still interested in enforcing the covenant. He mentioned that the board would like to see the north portion of the property remain an open space, and they would like to require the developer to include environmentally sustainable features such as the electric vehicle charging stations. Zinni said Altenheim would like to purchase some small sections of the property near the buildings to straighten out some property lines that were drawn during the sale. 

“We’d like the opportunity to buy back some property surrounding our property, which we think would be least desirable to the developer,” he said. 

Gene Armstrong, president of The Grove Midrise Condominium Association and chair of the Concerned Van Buren Citizens neighborhood organization, presented the results of the survey that the latter group conducted earlier this year. He said they sent out 184 surveys to the residents living east of Altenheim, and 114 people responded. Of the survey respondents, 75% supported keeping the area south of the retirement community open, 68% favored townhomes somewhere on the site, and 58% opposed any kind of commercial development. 

Based on the survey responses, Armstrong presented a site concept that called for a park with walking paths and a garden area south of the retirement community and east of Altenheim Cemetery, townhomes and/or midrise to the west and the picnic area to the northwest. The residential homes would include a new access road connected to Madison Street. 

DiFebo’s presentation outlined his committee’s proposal to turn the property into a public park and an event space. He argued that the existing event space on the north side of the property was too cramped, and pointed to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) 2040 plan, which stated that municipalities should have 10 acres of land per 1,000 people. At 1.65 acres of land per 1,000 people, DiFebo said, Forest Park is under that goal — but keeping Altenheim open would help remedy that. 

Tellalian noted that the number doesn’t include the neighboring forest preserves — which DiFebo argued isn’t relevant since they aren’t close enough for many Forest Parkers to reach on foot.

Since the village isn’t interested in running parks, and the Park District of Forest Park indicated it wasn’t interested in the land, DiFebo suggested establishing a Civic Center Authority to run it. 

He argued that the property tax generation benefits were overrated when one considers the money the village spends to provide services to the properties, as well as the fact that most of the tax revenue goes to the school districts. 

He also addressed the proposal that has been floated at earlier committee meetings to redevelop the underutilized north CTA parking lot, noting that there is a water main and a fiberoptic cable running under the property, which would limit any residential buildings. 

But Reid countered that his department has been dealing with a growing volume of calls even as its staffing remained the same and the fire station showed its age. As a resident and father, he would prefer a park, but added that generating revenue must take priority.

“Our revenue is not adequate to meet our current, nor our future public-safety needs,” he said. “Firefighters are, by nature and by necessity, pragmatists. Please be economic pragmatists as you navigate the development of both Altenheim and other future village developments.”

Police Officer Brendan Reilly said that, while he wasn’t originally planning to speak, given that his department faced similar issues, he felt compelled to express support for Reid.

“I can make the same points — exactly what the fire department says about bodies — about equipment, about time, about calls for service,” he said. “So I stand with them and [agree] that your concerns are legitimate and should be thought of.”