Cultural Park Committee wants Altenheim talks to resume

Mayor, village waiting to demolish buildings

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By Maria Maxham

The Cultural Park Committee, an ad hoc committee formed in December 2016 and headed by resident Ralph DiFebo, is itching to start up discussions once more about what will be done with the village owned property surrounding the Altenheim Retirement Home.

Mayor Rory Hoskins, however, wants to secure partial state funding for the demolition of five derelict structures – including the chapel – on the Altenheim property before making plans for the site.

In 2001, the village purchased the property for $3.6 million to avert purchase of the land by a private developer who wanted to build townhomes. The loan to finance the property purchase, which is approximately 11 acres, will be paid off in 2023, according to Village Administrator Tim Gillian.

The property is just south of Madison Street along Van Buren Street.

In 2007, a potential $4.3 million sale to the Oak Park YMCA fell through as the Y could not obtain financing, and in 2012 Fenwick High School offered to purchase the south section of the Altenheim property for athletic facilities but the village declined.

In August 2016, the Cultural Park Committee presented an ambitious plan for use of the Altenheim land, focusing on a performing arts venue. The committee proposed two more concepts in 2017.

In October 2018 the committee developed a financing plan for the proposed cultural park and amended their recommendations to the village council, drastically reducing the scope of the project, which no longer included the band-shell in the original plan, and cutting potential costs to about a tenth of the original plan, said DiFebo.

Their final recommendation involved selling the north section of the property, the two acres known as The Grove, to a developer to construct either a 55 and older condominium development or a boutique hotel. Proceeds from the sale would be used to demolish the chapel and remaining buildings on the property, pay off the remaining bond issue, and develop a drainage system for the south Altenheim field. The committee suggested that, next, a park should be created with similar attributes to The Grove, and a feasibility study should be conducted to determine the best use of the south Altenheim property.

The committee held a public forum in March 2018 to present these plans, and the issue was discussed during 2019 elections for commissioners and mayor. Since then, however, DiFebo said he's been waiting for the mayor and village council to focus on the topic again. He would like to see his committee empowered to make recommendations or see serious discussions happen within the village. And he wants an in-depth examination by the village to look at the net gain for Forest Park with whatever plans the village proposes.

"If the village goes with new development," said DiFebo, "they need to look at everything, like how much additional work the police and fire department will need to do and what that will cost. What are the infrastructure expenses? How will the village make sure the traffic situation is under control?"

DiFebo also wonders why village planning and talk about the Altenheim property seem to have stalled. Hoskins, however, said the village is waiting for demolition funding to come through from the state.

In June 2019, the village secured funding from the state of Illinois in the amount of $750,000 for demolition of the buildings and asbestos and environmental abatement costs, which, according to Department of Public Health and Safety Director Steve Glinke, will be about half the total cost. The funding is included in the $40 billion state budget approved by the General Assembly in June 2019. Hoskins stated that he wanted to wait until there was a better indication of when the money would be received before making plans for the property.

At a Feb. 10 village council meeting, Hoskins announced that he had received word that the money would be made available.

"Staff is completing the paperwork this week," said Hoskins at the meeting. "We hope to start work by mid-summer."

"Once we have the funds, we will go out to bid for contractors to do the demolition," Hoskins said in an interview, and he added that the village will work closely with the Altenheim senior housing board to make sure plans for the property are in line with what the Altenheim would like to see.

When asked why plans weren't being seriously developed in anticipation of the demolition, Hoskins said he is trying to be thoughtful in the process.

"I'd rather wait to see where we are financially when the demolition takes place," said Hoskins. "I don't want to make promises I can't keep." He added, however, that the village will be open to hearing all plans.

"Once we knock down the buildings, we will be open to talk to anybody about possible development and use of the land, including the Cultural Park Committee," said Hoskins.

As for a village-maintained cultural park, he said anything is up for consideration at this point, but he added that doing what's best for the village overall will play the biggest part in a final decision.

"The village is not in the business of administering large parks," said Hoskins, who mentioned that pension systems and minimizing property taxes are two of the things that are the core responsibilities of the village.

But he added that "there has been talk over the years about reaching out to the Park District of Forest Park" to see if they would be interested in expanding their property and services on the Altenheim land. The park district did not respond by time of publication.

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