20-Story Apartment Building Raises Questions Worth Answering


How many people are “too many”?

We’ve asked that question in a variety of different ways over the last several years in posts about residential development, mixed-use development, retail, façade improvements, and all the other land-use issues that have come up during that time.

Or put another way: How many people are “enough”?  And why?

That question has surfaced once again in connection with the 20-story apartment building Gart Partners LLC wants to build on part of what is now the site of the Farmers’ Market, on Prairie between Main and Garden. Last Tuesday night Gart brought its “concept plan” to the Planning & Zoning Commission (“P&Z”) to make its pitch for the zoning changes needed to make its project a reality.

Can you say 195 units on a site that would qualify for only 34 units if it was given the highest (R-5) residential rating provided in the Zoning Code? How about a 210-foot height where the maximum R-5 height is 45 feet? And because the structure would be in Target Area 4 of the Uptown TIF, it might also require amendments or exceptions to the existing TIF plan, which contemplates no residential structures higher than 5 stories.

Gart’s selling points for this structure are its agreement to pay $117,000 annually as an “apartment tax”; as much as $700,000 a year worth of additional property taxes; and the prospect of another $180,000/year in revenues if the City were to apply the “apartment tax” to its existing 300 apartment units.

Gart described it as “a whole new way of living for that side of the tracks.” And indeed it would be. Actually, it would be a whole new way of living for the entire City of Park Ridge.

The six P&Z commissioners present at the meeting seemed to view it with a mix of “you gotta be kidding me” and “just go away.” Which is what we expected.

But the way Gart dangled that carrot of $817,000 in annual additional taxes it claims just its own project would generate, we suspect these kinds of pitches will continue so long as (a) developers perceive Park Ridge as offering valuable development opportunities, and (b) the City struggles to keep annual property tax increases to under 5% while continuing to stagger under the weight of the Uptown TIF’s black-hole deficits and an estimated cost of $300 million (plus?) to implement a plan of city-wide flood control.

So it’s probably a good time to start a community-wide discussion of, in the first instance, just how many people we believe is optimal for this community, either in its “as is” condition or with a different configuration. Would we as a community like to add another 1,000, 3,000, 5,000, or more residents? And, if so, would we like them to be property owners or renters – assuming that distinction matters to a significant number of people.

Fifteen years ago the Uptown Advisory Task Force (the “UATF”) was created and began hatching its plan for the Uptown TIF, ostensibly to add a substantial retail, dining and entertainment component that would bring “vibrancy” (the unofficial buzzword for that development) to Uptown. At that time, a survey of approximately 2,500 people revealed an aversion to tall buildings and multi-family residential.

But by the time folks like former city manager Tim Schuenke, former mayor Ron Wietecha, a handful of true believers on the UATF and City Council, and hired-gun consultants like Trkla, Pettigrew, Allen & Payne, Inc. got done manipulating and massaging the Uptown redevelopment process to conform to their collective wills, we were left with the tallest and densest multi-family residential project in the City that, with one notable exception – Houlihan’s – rolls up its sidewalks by around 8:00 p.m. every night.

And not a lick of Uptown “entertainment” was added to supplement the movies the Pickwick has provided for decades.

In addition to publicly discussing what we want Park Ridge to be when it grows up, it might also be time to revisit the Zoning Code and how it does or doesn’t provide developers with reasonable, predictable guidelines as to what likely can and can’t be built in our City. Eliminating uncertainty in the zoning and permitting processes would go a long way toward eliminating any remnants of the “unfriendly to business” reputation Park Ridge allegedly acquired back in the Wietecha/Schuenke era.

That way, less time might be wasted by the various arms of City government – and by developers – on projects whose specs are so off the charts that our P&Z folks assume they are typographical errors, or outright jokes.

And, in the process, we may learn a little more about what the people most invested in this community, its residents, see in its future.

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