Parking garage access and traffic concerns were the main talking points for the Highland Park City Council as it moved forward with plans for a new housing development.
Councilmembers unanimously approved documents related to the project — the Wolbright Residences, a planned four-story, 24-unit structure just south of the Metra station — at its regular meeting on Monday, Jan. 23. The approval included variances and special conditions, such as a $150,000 donation to the city’s Housing Trust Fund.
Located at 650 Walnut St., the Wolbright calls for the consolidation of 636-650 Walnut St. and 1606-1622 Oakwood Ave. The footprint will cover the majority of the land between Oakwood and Walnut, except for 602-606 Walnut at the southwest corner of the intersection.
Additionally, the project will include underground parking garage. It was that parking garage, and access to it, that drove the nearly 1-hour-and-45-minute discussion from the council.
Original plans called for garage access to be on LaSalle Street, but according to Mark Muller, president of the Wolbright’s construction firm, Fulton Developers, a number of factors led to the decision to move the driveway to Walnut Street. Among them is a 35-inch white oak heritage tree that is located on LaSalle Street and is a challenge to build around.
Muller said that during past local project, Highland Park boards and commissions have asked about viable alternatives to removing heritage trees.
“In the case of this project, we felt we had a viable alternative, which is to put the access of off Walnut,” he said.
Another factor for the driveway switch involved parking on LaSalle. Neighbors shared concerns with Muller about losing access to the spaces.
A traffic study also led to the driveway being relocated to Walnut, said Muller. The study reportedly indicated that a driveway would have a minimal impact on traffic.
“It’s been a long process to try and find the right location for that driveway,” Muller said.
While some council members did not object to the driveway’s location on Walnut, a few had concerns that it would increase traffic.
Councilmember Annette Lidawer said it appears to her that Walnut will now be very busy.
“Everything ended up on Walnut,” she said.
Based on observations, Lidawer’s concerned over how busy the street will get, noting a “very strange intersection at Oakwood (Avenue), First (Street) and Walnut.”
“Frankly, when you add that in with the train station, and commuter’s traffic over there, when I was there it was really busy,” Lidawer said. “I was shocked. And this is not when the trains are at full capacity. I’m just wondering how all this balances out.”
Councilmember Andrés Tapia said he was also concerned about the potential impact on traffic and suggested that maybe the council needs to reconsider the heritage tree on LaSalle.
“I love trees. It’s why I’m here,” he said. “I love that we’re so protective of them,” but he noted that residents have “anxiety” about potential traffic issues on Walnut.
“If I’m weighing those two things, I’m finding myself more predisposed to our residents and what they’re feeling as opposed to the sake of saving this one wonderful, beautiful tree,” Tapia said.
Speaking during public comment, neighbor Dale Cohodes said that while she also supports saving trees, sometimes construction still damages them. She mentioned 1 Highland Place, another project from Fulton Developers which she and Muller both said involved saving a heritage tree.
“If you go by and look now, that tree is dying,” she said. “Great efforts were made, and it’s kind of been a failure. I want to take that into consideration and think about having the driveway come out on LaSalle.”
Councilmember Adam Stolberg, however, said he has no problem with the driveway being on Walnut, and while he respects the concerns of the neighbors, he said he will listen to the traffic study which concluded the impact will be minimal.
“I think the developer has tried his best and their best to accommodate as many of the neighbors as possible,” Stolberg said, adding that even if it were moved to LaSalle, they would be hearing objections.
“If you change this to LaSalle, the next meeting’s going to have all the LaSalle neighbors here,” he said. “It’s a difficult situation, but at the end of the day, I have to lean on the professionals that are impartial.”
Muller is expected to return to the City Council next month, where final plans, which will take into account feedback from Monday’s meeting, will be presented.
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Peter Kaspari is a blogger and a freelance reporter. A 10-year veteran of journalism, he has written for newspapers in both Iowa and Illinois, including spending multiple years covering crime and courts. Most recently, he served as the editor for The Lake Forest Leader. Peter is also a longtime resident of Wilmette and New Trier High School alumnus.