Teardown issue poses new challenges

Opinion

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The recent outpour of citizen feedback in response to a proposed Elgin Avenue townhouse development is a preview of the debate that is likely to dominate Forest Park politics for years after the current police department mayhem finally dies down.

It is an issue that must be handled with particular care since there is no blanket solution for the problems it poses. Teardowns are often seen as stripping villages of the character that once made them unique, replacing historic and interesting homes with cookie-cutter McMansions and barracks-like townhouses.

In Forest Park, the issue is not as clear-cut. The village has plenty of historic homes, and it would certainly be a shame if they were destroyed. But it also has its share of homes that are just plain old, and considering the town's recent development boom, are just begging to be hit by a wrecking ball.

Still, future density issues are sure to spark outrage, much like what is now being seen on Elgin. With a council majority that is overwhelmingly pro-development, it is likely that residents and government will often not see eye to eye. Few developers are interested in replacing small homes with equally small ones, and residents will have to accept that their neighborhood will change along with the village.

Village hall, however, must realize that all the change the town has undergone in the last few years, including the retail and residential development explosions and the expansion of its tax base that has resulted, are worthless if the end result does not make Forest Park a better place to live in the eyes of its residents.

It is easy for a municipality to begin to function like a corporation, operating under the assumption that anything good for its bottom line is automatically good for business. It is crucial that, in the midst of the excitement surrounding the goal of making a bigger, better, newer Forest Park, government does not lose sight of who it's serving.

The controversial Elgin Avenue development will be a test to see where the village's priorities reside. With a bulk of the nearby residents staunchly opposing the project as proposed, a council vote to allow the proposal in its current form would expose misplaced priorities and likely prompt a political battle.

The village's new historic preservation commission has the right idea, allowing residents the chance to apply for historic certification for their homes or neighborhoods that would then prevent future teardowns in those areas. It gives residents options for protect their neighborhood without getting in the way of teardowns in areas where they are appropriate and even necessary.

Still, more needs to be done to ensure that decisions regarding teardowns are not completely subjective. As seen in the Elgin situation, there are areas all over Forest Park where the zoning and character of the neighborhood simply do not match. To provide clearer guidance to developers and minimize future outrage from residents, it might be time for the village to put some serious thought into comprehensively updating its zoning map in the very near future.

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