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Normal mayor urges less strident rhetoric over housing proposals

An artist's rendering of the apartment building
Town of Normal
Submitted Plans for The Essex
The Essex multifamily housing complex is being planned for what’s currently 17 acres of farmland at the northeast corner of Shelbourne Avenue and Beech Street in Normal.

Normal Mayor Chris Koos said the town bears some responsibility for the problems in the Savannah Green subdivision that will be costly to fix, including the town council approving nearly $4 million to repair crumbling streets and alleys.

Even at the time, about two decades ago, labor unions questioned the building standards for housing foundations used by a Springfield-based developer, whose proposal won council approval. Since then, the roads and alleys in the subdivision have deteriorated faster and further than the average, or what was expected.

"You always judge the decision about the outcomes on that. And we've had some negative outcomes that are being addressed at one level or another. So yeah, we're partially culpable on that," Koos said Tuesday on WGLT's Sound Ideas.

But Koos said Savannah Green also succeeded in bringing back an older form of neighborhood with detached garages, small lots, and alleys.

"At its time, it came in at a very good price point. It addressed a starter home affordability issue we were having in the community even back then," he said.

The issue of a lack of affordable first-home inventory in the community remains a pressing one. It raises the question whether the town should favor another such traditional neighborhood design project, but one built to a higher standard of quality.

“We're always open to those kinds of concepts," said Koos. "That’s our issue right now. And it's an issue nationwide, after returning from the National League of Cities and talking to mayors of other communities. Housing starts are low across the country. Even though you'll see some communities talk about a building boom, it's still not addressing the overall need in the country.

"And given the current economic situation with interest costs, material costs, and labor, we've got a trifecta of issues that are making it very difficult to build any kind of housing much less very affordable housing.”

Housing project near Collie Ridge

One larger project moving forward is the proposed Collie Ridge subdivision. The Essex multi-family housing complex on 17 acres at Shelbourne Avenue and Beech Street calls for 228 new apartment units spread across 19 buildings, plus 24 additional units in six row houses. There would be on-site detention, plus recreation areas, 457 parking spots, and 88 bike parking spots, according to the plans. Trees and hedges would help screen the area from neighbors and passers-by.

The area is surrounded by single family homes and is currently zoned for single-family lots. The plan goes before the planning commission on Thursday, and if public comment at Monday’s town council meeting — where the $4 million in Savanna Green street repairs were approved — is a gauge, it will generate heat at the commission stage.

Koos said it will be important for everyone to be heard, and for developers to communicate with the neighborhood.

“We've had some experience on some issues like that with student housing. The project on Main Street that had the old University Cinemas was very controversial at the time. One developer was not able to go forward with it and [another] developer picked it up, and really did a good job, in my opinion, of talking to the neighbors and coming up with a plan that resolved some of the issues that people were fearing were going to happen as a result of that density of student housing next to residential. And it worked. That project is not controversial right now,” said Koos.

He said developers need to heed such lessons.

“And the developers are anxious to do this, they don't want to come in and have a fight with a neighborhood. They want to hear what their issues are, and realistically address them as they can,” said Koos.

Koos said he is not keen to have a mandatory process for developers to consult with surrounding owners, though it is a best practice, adding it’s not appropriate for governments to mediate or arbitrate a dispute.

“I think it's up to a developer to work with the neighbors. And we've seen that happening now," he said. "Whether or not you get everything you want in today's world, I think neighbors and developers can sit together and craft some kind of compromise solution."

Koos said it is in the public interest for everyone to tone down some of the "sensationalist" conversation that tends to pop out in any multi-family project.

Some people, he said, think "Multi-family will be Section 8, [that], 'Any family multi-family project is enticing an unsavory type of individual to live in those projects.' That's something I think that needs to be addressed because it's actually not the case,” said Koos.

He said there can be conflicting lifestyles between single-family and multi-family areas, but a good conversation between the developer and the neighborhood to address those issues is critically important in the planning stage.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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