A different approach to Albion

Opinion: Columns

August 8th, 2017 2:34 PM

By Michael Koss

One View

I am an architect living in Oak Park and have walked and jogged and driven from my home in north Oak Park to downtown and south Oak Park countless times in the 23-plus years I have lived here. Count me as one of those Oak Park residents who welcome the trend to higher residential density in downtown Oak Park, which I believe has resulted in more viable downtown businesses and has made downtown Oak Park a livelier, more identifiable gathering place, which I believe in the long run supports the Oak Park community. 

However, I believe there is a tipping point, where the excessive scale of development hampers and discourages community identity, plunders community assets, and contributes nothing serious in the way of civic amenities. As a Planned Unit Development, the Albion requests extreme allowable increases to the existing zoning requirements as follows:

1. Building height (from 80 feet allowable to 195 feet 6 inches proposed) — an increase of 144%

2. Building stories (from 8 to 18 proposed) — an increase of 125%

3. Unit density (from 40 allowable to 265 proposed) — an increase of 550%

4. Parking (from 1 space per unit or 265 spaces required to actual spaces for 142 units, or a 44% decrease). Note that page 460 of the Albion submission includes 56 inaccessible tandem spaces for larger units that are not usable unless a tenant leases two spaces. And Oak Parkers all know that lack of parking ranks near the top of most controversial issues in the village.

5. Landscaped setbacks from 5 feet to 0 feet

The intended Albion site is significant to the urban and architectural landscape of Oak Park. Just north of the Albion site is one of Oak Park's most unique and valuable assets — Austin Gardens. The Albion will use Austin Gardens as a selling point to its tenants for its views and proximity to green space, and then literally turns its back on it with a north-facing 4-story masonry wall. 

Just up Forest Avenue, one block away from the Albion site is the idealized late-19th-century suburban streetscape of Forest Avenue, capped off by the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio. Visitors from all over the U.S. and even the world, come to see these priceless examples of late Victorian- and Prairie-style architecture. 

Why did Daniel Burnham imagine Chicago's lakefront as a park? Think of Chicago at that time, as corrupt as it was, foregoing all that lakefront commerce! All those real estate transfer taxes! Heck, Chicago could have been Cleveland, Detroit or Milwaukee.

Does a development like Albion contribute to the betterment of our civic landscape or livability in our village? I think not. Does it give Oak Park a one-time or two-time real estate transfer tax bonanza? Yes. Does it give Oak Park some extra tax money, even as it uses village resources, roads, schools, parks and services? Probably — a little. Have any of these developments lowered my tax bill? No. But mostly this development is good for its financial investors in Texas. Its primary purpose is to squeeze as many units with the least parking that they can possibly sell to what they believe are the willing and gullible village administrators and business leaders of Oak Park. Dress it up with a possible LEED rating (although maybe not), make the façade a little interesting by sliding blocks of floors to and fro, and voila! And after citizens pose unforeseen questions, they'll hire a bunch of experts to answer them after the fact.

In reality, the proposed Albion site presents the village of Oak Park with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to imagine another, greater civic use for this property. Imagine a world-class pocket art museum (possibly a satellite to the Art Institute) on this site, designed by an architect who wins a worldwide juried competition. Instead of building a wall between suburban Oak Park and urban Oak Park, a museum would be a connector, well within the height and density limitations of the existing zoning for that site. 

It could facilitate and enhance the connection between Austin Gardens and the village instead of erecting a barrier at the south end of the park. It would also contribute to the life and vitality of downtown Oak Park, maybe bringing in customers to those Lake Street businesses — customers who don't live in Oak Park but visit because it's interesting here, and maybe beautiful.

Oak Parkers are rightfully proud of the past. That's why we have codified the historic districts — because they help make Oak Park a coherent community and a desirable place to live. And now we have an opportunity to do something great for Oak Park's future. Sure, it's a gamble. It's not easy to stand in the way of the money train as it's bearing down on us. I'm willing.

Michael Koss is an architect and a resident of Oak Park.