Draft comprehensive plan suggests taller buildings

River Forest officials expect to approve new plan on May 13

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By Nona Tepper

River Forest trustees discussed the village's draft comprehensive plan at a meeting on April 8, with conversation centering on proposed building heights, affordable housing, and business development.

The comprehensive plan is an extensive, more than 100-page document divided into 10 chapters that discusses topics like future land use and development; parks, open space and the environment; corridor framework plans; and more. It was last updated in 2003. John Houseal, village planning consultant, said the plan identifies where River Forest is now as a community, priorities for where it wants to go, and outlines steps for how to get there.

"It is a foundation for decision-making. It does not dictate the outcome of anything; it is not regulatory like zoning; it does not say what you have to do or cannot do with your property," Houseal said at the meeting. "It is a way to help residents, investors, developers, staff, elected officials and appointed officials make coordinated decisions as River Forest grows." 

He noted that corridors along Madison Street, North Avenue, Lake Street and Harlem Avenue are "most susceptible to change in the coming decade or two," and that "we want our residential neighborhoods to look like they are right now 100 years from now."

The River Forest Plan Commission approved the draft plan at a meeting on March 7. Trustees expect to approve the proposed plan at a meeting on May 13.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, resident Daniel Lauber recommended several changes to the proposal, including a greater emphasis on affordable housing, rejecting increased building heights, and opposing moving the village Public Works Department outside River Forest. He said he was "stunned" by the suggestion to move public works from both a fiscal perspective — "Depending on which neighboring community it is, our staff would have to drive to get into and out from River Forest, and it will increase the cost of operating the department," he said — as well as from a progressive perspective.

"This smacks of what people call violation of environmental justice, essentially taking our dirty laundry… to one of our neighboring communities, all of which are much more lower-income communities and have a much more substantial minority population," Lauber said.  

Houseal said moving public works was "not a new idea" and that it could be mutually beneficial to River Forest — and to whatever neighboring village it moved to — from a financial and logistical perspective. "We should look at the potential of doing it," he said.

Lauber added that he was against increasing the maximum height of the buildings. Instead, he said, the village should use increased heights as a bargaining tool to get developers to build more affordable housing.

"The key is putting in the word 'affordable' in all these other opportunities where we're talking about future development," Lauber said.

Nine percent of the village's housing is designated as affordable and the state requires municipalities with less than 10 percent affordable housing to create plans on how to build more. Houseal said the village is currently working on a plan to increase its affordable housing stock, which will include specific numbers and percentages required of future developers. 

"I don't think it's a good idea to put that in here because that could all change. We should let that live in another document," Houseal said.

Trustee Carmela Corsini said she felt concerned that listing specific building heights would set unrealistic expectations for residents who live nearby, and recommended against including exact numbers.

Under the draft plan, buildings along Madison Street would be permitted to rise 50 feet, above the current max of 30 feet; North Avenue buildings could rise 60 feet, above the existing limit of 50 feet; properties on Harlem Avenue could rise 60 feet, up from 30 feet; buildings east of Lathrop Avenue on Lake Street could rise 70 feet, up from 50 feet; and the village center area could rise 70 feet, up from 50 feet.

"I know it's not necessarily something that's written in stone because you have to go through zoning," Corsini said.

Village President Cathy Adduci called listing the proposed heights the "elephant in the room" but said not listing them "doesn't resolve the issue the residents have because they need guidelines."

Houseal said heights were listed in the document because residents had called for a greater understanding of what to expect from new developments. He added that the village has not examined its zoning code in about 20 years, and it might be time to reexamine some of the height standards along corridors, particularly Harlem Avenue.

"We heard from several residents that, if we always grant relief, maybe it is time to reexamine some of these corridors, and we should we bump them up," he said. "So there is a page in the plan considering possibly looking at these further to investigate and get it specified. But it's not 'We should do this, not specific recommendations.' It says these are some number possibilities to look at going forward." 

Houseal said he would work with the village attorney and staff to further emphasize in the plan that these were proposed heights and that heights would ultimately be determined on an individual zoning basis.

CONTACT: ntepper@wjinc.com

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