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High-rise rally draws crowd to Austin Gardens

Residents argue that 18-story apartment building will hurt Austin Gardens

March 20th, 2017 4:47 PM

Updated: Mar. 21st, 2017 2:13 PM

Mary O'Kiersey (left) signs a petition to block construction of an 18-story building proposed for the corner of Lake Street and Forest Avenue. Joshua Klayman (right) was collecting signatures at the Austin Gardens Don't Throw Shade rally on Sunday, March 19.

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By Timothy Inklebarger

Staff Reporter

Perhaps 200 people turned out Sunday afternoon to Austin Gardens in downtown Oak Park for a rally to oppose a proposed 18-story apartment building they say would damage the ecology of the park.

Organizers of the Austin Gardens Don't Throw Shade Rally made no presentation but marked off areas of the park they say would be negatively impacted by the shadow that would be cast over the park for much of the year.

They collected signatures for a petition to send to the Oak Park village board to encourage that body to oppose a zoning change needed by Albion Residential to build the structure. Existing zoning on the Lake Street parcel -- just south of the park -- allows an 8-story structure.

Albion released a statement following the digital publication of this story, noting that the company intends to protect Austin Gardens as well.

Residents and organizers argued that a large shadow already is cast over the park by the 21-story Vantage apartment building that was recently completed directly to the east of the proposed Albion building.

Mary O'Kiersey, a former resident of the neighborhood, said she and others opposed the Vantage building when it was first proposed. Now she opposing another one, she said, as she signed the organizer's petition.

"Up until spring, that (Vantage) building casts a huge shadow on the park," she said. "Now if they put another one here, it's going to block out the solar panels that are on the roof of the new nature center."

Joshua Klayman, an Oak Park resident who gathered petition signatures at the event, said residents are concerned that the dense shadow will damage the ecology of the park, preventing trees and other wildlife from receiving the proper amount of sun for much of the year.

Klayman said he's been collecting signatures at the CTA stations and other areas of town and hasn't had a single person say they're in favor of the high-rise building. "I think if you were to take a proper poll, there would be overwhelming opposition to it."

Traffic on Lake Street would increase and the character of the neighborhood would be eroded by the building, he said.

Albion has said that it oriented the building in an L-shape with the massing of the structure closer to Lake Street to reduce the shadow cast over the park, but Klayman said he's not buying it.

The L-shaped orientation only has the effect of moving the shade back by a few feet, Klayman said. "So it really doesn't have any effect."

Albion, in a written statement, reiterated its position that the L-shaped orientation would "minimize impact on Austin Gardens." The company noted that if it built an 8-story building as of right, it could do so in such a way that would have a much greater shadow impact on the park.

"Our shadow studies also show an 80-foot, block-shape building would create just as much, and at certain times of the year, more shadow impact on Austin Gardens than the building we proposed," Albion President Jason Koehn said in a written statement.

Organizers Laura Stamp and Ada Tikkanen said they consider the rally a success because of the big turnout. They emphasized that people really value the park and that's why they showed up.

"If people didn't feel strongly about this park, then they wouldn't be here," Stamp said.

She said it's not good enough for Albion to argue that the shadow would be less pervasive during the summer because many people want to use the park year round. "Yeah, we want the sun in the summer, but on a winter day we want the sun as well," she said.

Tikkanen argued that she and others are not anti-development, but want "thoughtful development" in the village.

"Just put thought into what you're building, where you're building it, the style of it," she said.

She noted that Forest Avenue, which runs adjacent to the park, "is the gateway to Frank Lloyd Wright" district.

"You have people from all over the world coming here and walking down this street, and all of a sudden you're hit in the face with a big monolith," she said.

The two organizers taped off trees with yellow police-style caution tape to show which ones would be affected by the shadow. Orange spray paint marked the grass with the words "Dead Zone" to demarcate how far organizers believe the shadow would stretch across the park.

That space will see "six hours of sun or less per day" when the shadow is at its largest, Tikkanen said.

Koehn said in the written statement that "the fear the building we have proposed would 'destroy' Austin Gardens is incorrect. It won't."

"Tall buildings and green spaces coexist across the country," Koehn said. "For proof a few blocks away from Austin Gardens, see Mills Tower next to Mills Park."

The issue has been a big topic in the upcoming village board election set for April 4, but Stamp said she has no interest in hearing the developer's proposal.

"I see people as quote, 'Let's give the developers a chance,' – unfortunately, I don't trust them to actually listen to us and I think money talks," Stamp said. "When candidates say no, they're the people I want to vote for."

Koehn said Albion has commissioned an arborist to review the potential impact on "trees, vegetation and wildlife" at the park.

Albion has submitted a proposal to the village, which is being reviewed by village staff.

Koehn said the arborist's study will be added to the planned development application when the report is available and "no matter what it includes."

The board of trustees will review the proposal and then forward it to the Plan Commission for further review. That commission will hold hearings on the proposal and then submit a recommendation for the board to approve or reject.

Koehn said Albion hopes to work with the Park District of Oak Park – which already has formally opposed the project – to enhance the park and "make it more accessible for neighbors and newcomers."

"Austin Gardens is an asset for everyone, including potential new residents in our building," Koehn said. "To suggest we want to 'destroy' it makes no sense and is a fear not based on fact."

* This story was updated to include comments from Albion Residential President Jason Koehn 

CONTACT: tim@oakpark.com