The proposed path along Van Buren Street | Drawing from Christopher B. Burke Engineering

More than a year after the Village of Forest Park approved the engineering contract for the bike and walking path on the west side of the section of Van Buren Street that runs along the historic Altenheim property, the project hasn’t seen any progress – and the land negotiations between the village and the Altenheim retirement community are the reason for the stall.

The multi-use path would connect Madison Street and the start of the Illinois Prairie Path Trail. On the long run, it would link to the proposed south extension of the Des Plaines River Trail, which would run along Thatcher Avenue in River Forest and along Madison Street in Forest Park. While most of the path would be built along the village-owned portion of Altenheim property, it would cross the section of the property the retirement community still owns. 

For the retirement community, the issue goes back to the way the property was divided up when the village bought 11 acres of it back in 2001. The Altenheim board wants to straighten out some of the dividing lines, by land swap of necessary. According to Public Works director Sal Stella, the negotiations have stalled, which ground any work on the Van Buren path to a halt.

In November 2020, Forest Park received a $247,500 Invest in Cook grant, which at the time was expected to cover about half of the construction costs. The delays got to the point that on Oct. 23, the village council voted unanimously to extension of the construction deadline to the end of 2025. Stella said that he had no idea how long the negotiations would take, let alone whether they would be concluded in time to meet the new deadline.

The village council didn’t discuss the reasons for the agreement extension. But Stella told the Review that the issue was the ongoing negotiations over the land swap, as well as “some type of right-of-way disagreement.”

Altenheim retirement community board member Mark Zinni has said that they were interested in the land swap to straighten out the edges of their current property limits. 

Stella said that the situation was further complicated after village administrator Moses Amidei was fired at the end of August. He said that Amidei was conducting the negotiations, and it fell down the list of priorities as Rachell Entler was appointed interim village administrator.

According to the village documents, the path will be 10 feet wide to allow bicyclists and walkers to travel in both directions without worrying about passing cars. The project would also include directional signs for the Illinois Prairie Path.

The Van Buren path would connect to the Forest Park Blue Line ‘L’ terminal, a major transit hub where riders can transfer to multiple Pace bus routes serving the surrounding suburbs. The buses come equipped with bike racks, and riders can bring bikes on board the el trains during off-peak hours.

The 61-mile-long Illinois Prairie Path largely follows the former Chicago Aurora and Elgin Railroad interurban train line right of way. The trail goes to Wheaton, where it splits off into two branches, one going to Elgin and one going to Aurora. 

The 55-mile-long Des Plaines River Trail runs along or near the eponymous river, stopping just short of the Illinois/Wisconsin border. The trail currently doesn’t go further south than North Avenue in River Forest, creating a significant gap.

In June 2022, the village put together the Altenheim Committee to figure out the best use for the village-owned portion of the property. Its final report, which was released in March, called for keeping the triangle-like north section of the property as a public recreational space, building homes that comply with R-2 zoning between the south edge of the current retirement community and the Altenheim cemetery, and adding denser housing at the southeast corner to take advantage of its proximity to the “L’ terminal. The committee also recommended selling a few pieces of the land back to Altenheim to even out its portion of the property.

The plan didn’t explicitly address the Van Buren Path. Since the Altenheim Committee released its recommendations, the village council agreed to work with Tim Brangle, head of the Chicago Consultants Studio development consulting firm and a member of the River Forest Economic Development Commission, to flesh the recommendations out.