Highland Park, News

Driveway disagreement causes split vote, but City Council OK’s The Wolbright. Also, staff shares details on Highland Park’s new resiliency division

A new housing development in Highland Park is moving forward but not with the support of the entire City Council.

The agreement, plat of consolidation and special use permits for the Wolbright Residences were approved Monday, March 13, with a 4-2 vote. Councilmembers Annette Lidawer and Andrés Tapia voted against the final design of the complex.

A four-story, 24-unit structure just southwest of the town’s Metra station, the Wolbright at 650 Walnut St. consolidates the plats at 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.

When the Wolbright was last discussed by the Highland Park City Council in January, councilmembers’ and residents’ concerns centered on the proposed location of the driveway, which would provide access to a parking garage.

Not all agreed with its location on Walnut Street, expressing concerns that it would lead to increased traffic in the area and asking if the driveway could move to LaSalle Street.

Mark Muller — president of Fulton Developers, the Wolbright’s construction firm — said on Monday that since that January meeting he and his staff have looked into the feasibility of moving the driveway to LaSalle, meeting with City staff and traffic engineers and collecting public feedback. He said the data showed that Walnut is the most appropriate location for the driveway.

Regarding a heritage tree located on LaSalle, which would have to be removed if the driveway were to be relocated, Muller said he didn’t believe the project would meet the City’s requirements to remove it.

“I feel that we’ve tried the best we can to do a quality project, taking into account the neighbor’s concerns,” Muller said, noting that the Wolbright has been in development for about two years and that he and his staff have consistently met with neighbors and worked to address all the issues they’ve shared.

An aerial overlay of The Wolbright, showing its entryway and driveway access off Walnut Street.

He also said if the driveway is moved to LaSalle, the angle of it would be a safety concern. The only solution, according to Muller, would be to alter the setback of the entire building.

While Tapia praised Muller for his dedication to working with the neighbors and called the Wolbright itself “a beautiful project,” he struggled with what any future developments downtown could do to the traffic on Walnut.

He said he wasn’t disagreeing with the conclusions of a traffic study, which reportedly found that there will be minimal impact on traffic down Walnut, but he wondered if the focus of it was only on the immediate future and not what would happen as more development happens downtown.

“I’m thinking, down the road, there’s going to be more development there. And it will be more traffic. That’s inevitable,” Tapia said. “But is this a moment to optimize the spaces there when we have a chance to optimize the space and create greater headroom for growth when growth happens just north of Walnut?”

He added that he believes there is “adequate” space on LaSalle for the driveway.

Lidawer also mentioned future developments in her comments and said she believes that if the driveway is moved to LaSalle, drivers will have more options.

She supported looking into the feasibility of moving the building back further to lessen the grade of a potential LaSalle driveway.

“I don’t want to slow down this project because we all want this project … and it will be beautiful. I feel very confident with that,” Lidawer said, “but I think until we know for sure that there’s no way to lessen the impact (of traffic), which I do not feel confident that we’ve put in every resource to determine, I think it’s moving too quickly for me, and I cannot support it without having (driveway access) on LaSalle.”

While Councilmember Adam Stolberg said he “struggled” with the location of the driveway, in the end he said safety is his primary concern and that it was best to listen to the analysis that concluded the slope of the driveway would be an issue if it were built on LaSalle.

He added he is not in favor of moving the entire building back to fix any slope issues on LaSalle.

“But the one thing that’s very hard is going against an engineering and a traffic opinion that says this is not a best practice,” Stolberg said. “And then what do we do when someone slides down the ramp and hits the garage or worse?”

Councilmember Anthony Blumberg said he believes that Walnut is better equipped to handle a traffic increase than LaSalle and shared Stolberg’s concerns about “significant safety issues” with a potential driveway relocation.

Resiliency Division’s mission and services shared

Also on Monday, Highland Park councilmembers and residents learned more about the City’s new resiliency division, which was formed in the wake of a mass shooting at Highland Park’s Fourth of July parade in 2022.

City Manager Ghida Neukirch said the division was created following guidance from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime, which has continually assisted the City following the shooting.

She said the resiliency division “was certainly warranted” and has provided resources to those who were impacted by the tragedy and to the community at large.

Neukirch said major initiatives the division is undertaking include short-term counseling, which is followed by a “warm handoff” to a licensed professional who can provide long-term therapy.

The division also provides case management and needs assessments, assistance with the Illinois Crime Victims Compensation Act and collaboration with community partners, such as schools and libraries, 211 Lake County, Family Services of Lake County, and the Highland Park-based North Suburban Legal Aid Clinic.

“And we are regularly collaborating, sharing information and making sure that our community and the entire Highland Park area, everyone who’s really been impacted by that tragedy, has services and information to support them,” she said.

The division has two full-time staff members: Cynthia Vargas, the resiliency division manager, and Michelle Koso, victim liaison.

Mayor Nancy Rotering praised the staff and resources the division provides.

“They’ve been incredible,” she said.

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Peter Kaspari

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.

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