Albion: Tower won't hurt Austin Gardens

Developer makes first formal proposal to Oak Park Plan Commission

July 12th, 2017 6:01 PM

Updated: Jul. 13th, 2017 3:00 PM

Residents filled Oak Park Village Hall on Tuesday, July 11, to hear the proposal from Albion Residential for an 18-story apartment building in downtown Oak Park.

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By Timothy Inklebarger

Staff Reporter

Oak Park residents got their first official presentation on the controversial 18-story Albion high-rise building proposed for downtown at a meeting of the Oak Park Plan Commission on July 11.

A team of Albion representatives made the case that the mixed-use building – 265 apartments, 9,500 square feet of retail and an internal parking garage with 235 spaces – would not damage the adjacent Austin Gardens or create traffic congestion in the downtown area.

The building is zoned to allow eight stories, so Albion must receive aproval from the Oak Park Board of Trustees. The citizen-led Plan Commission will provide a recommendation to the board of trustees, but the commission's recommendation is not binding.

Albion's vice president of development, Andrew Yule, said the building was designed in an L-shaped configuration to reduce the amount of shade cast over Austin Gardens. The company's arborist, Mark Duntemann of the Oak Park-based Natural Path Urban Forestry Consultants, said that "97 percent of the park is not going to be affected by shade proposed by the project."

Trees in the southeast portion of the park would have a shadow cast over them during part of the growing season, but those still would receive "sufficient sunlight," Duntemann said. Most trees in the park would get nine hours of sunlight per day during the growing season – non-winter months – and oak trees in the park, which have been around since before the area was first settled, would not be affected at all, he said.

That runs counter to arguments made by opponents of the project, who say the shade could damage the park's ecosystem.

The village also hired a third-party consultant, James Kielbaso, forestry and professor of Michigan State University, to review Duntemann's findings. Kielbaso confirmed the Albion report, stating that all but about 11 trees in the southeast corner of the park would be unaffected by the shade, and those trees would not be damaged by the shading.

Kielbaso noted that apple-tree farmers require six to eight hours of sunlight for their trees to bear fruit, adding, "I don't think you're trying to grow apples."

"Any shading impact from Albion will be restricted to the southeast corner of Austin Gardens, and that to only a small degree," Kielbaso wrote in his report.

He said trees in the southeast portion of the park already were "in a bad condition" and suggested they be removed and replaced with "native, shade tolerant species as part of the Albion project."

Kielbaso was not the only independent consultant to review the project for the village. Rich Van Zeyl, and Floyd Anderson at Wright & Co., submitted a review of the proposal.

"We support the project, as we believe the design will be an interesting addition to the Lake Street corridor," Van Zeyl and Anderson wrote in their report. "The shifting massing of the tower will create a unique architectural feature, visible from around the village and the Green Line trains."

Albion also addressed criticism from opponents that the building would exacerbate the so-called wind tunnel that was created by its neighbor to the east – the 21-story Vantage luxury apartment building.

Yule argued that a wind study included in the planned development application by Canadian wind consulting firm Rowan Williams Davies & Irwin Inc. shows that the Albion tower would actually reduce the wind-tunnel effect.

"I will acknowledge that I feel wind on a windy day around the project," Yule said, adding that the RWDI study shows that westerly winds "are hitting the [Vantage building] and washing straight down to the street."

Albion would block those wind blasts from the street, Yule concluded.

Plan commissioners Douglas Gilbert and Greg Marsey said they needed more information from the consultant to better understand the findings of their report. Gilbert noted that the RWDI report suggested that the wind instead would travel down the north side of the building into the adjacent Austin Gardens.

Yule emphasized that Albion wants to be a good neighbor to the resident of Oak Park, telling commissioners that the company plans to contribute $170,000 for landscaping, parks and trees in Oak Park; $50,000 each to the Oak Park Housing Center, Housing Forward and The Oak Park Affordable Housing Fund; and $20,000 to the Oak Park River Forest Community Foundation.

The money for landscaping can go toward "whatever the village of Oak Park wants to do in landscaping initiatives," he said.

Albion also will establish a $200,000 escrow account for landscaping and trees in Austin Gardens, he said.

"In the unlikely event that something happens during construction that money's available to make sure it's drawn from immediately to repair or replace anything that would have been damaged during construction," he said.

Although the meeting, held in council chambers at Village Hall, was heavily attended, the commission largely heard from the developer and the village's independent consultants.

The commission plans to meet again on July 27 at which point residents and others will be given the opportunity to cross-examine Albion representatives about the proposal and provide testimony in support or opposition to the project.

If the commission is unable to complete its deliberations at that meeting, additional meetings are tentatively scheduled for Aug. 3rd and 10th.

* This story was updated to correct the name of the architural firm for which Floyd Anderson works and to clarify that all but about 11 trees would be unaffected by the building's shade.