New development projects in already-developed suburban areas can attract controversy. Here is an example from downtown Wheaton, Illinois: the city council just approved a senior housing project but some of the neighbors are not happy with the change to the site and there are some questions about funding and whether the city will be left with a bill.
The council voted 4-3 this week to allow construction of a 167-unit facility on a site once slated for luxury condominiums as part of the Courthouse Square complex at the corner of Naperville Road and Willow Avenue…
The approval came after nine planning and zoning board meetings totaling more than 24 hours with testimony from experts, opponents and supporters. In a nearly unanimous vote in August, that board recommended the council deny the zoning plans.
The original proposal for the complex, supported by the council in 2004, called for a mix of townhouses and condos. But developers cited the housing market crash when they pulled the plug on what were supposed to be the second and third midrise buildings. Northfield-based Focus Development Inc. and West Chicago-based Airhart Construction Corp. partnered on the project.
The saga continued when developers asked to amend the plan to allow senior housing, angering some Courthouse Square residents who argued they were promised a strictly residential community when they bought their units.
I’m not sure how this will all play out in court and whether the current residents have a case against the developers. However, here are a few thoughts about this:
1. Senior citizen housing would be helpful in Wheaton. As a more mature community that is relatively wealthy, there are relatively less places in the community for seniors to live in affordable housing. Indeed, when communities like Wheaton do talk about affordable, they tend to be talking about seniors and young people who would like to be in the community but don’t have the resources due to their stage in life to remain.
2. Wheaton has been on a longer program of introducing more housing into the downtown, starting with the condominiums built in the early 1990s across the street from the downtown train station. While higher-end housing might bring in more revenue and people who have more spending power to spread around the downtown, having some development in this space rather than none might be preferable.
3. Like in many suburban debates about development, it sounds like this is partly (mainly?) about property values. The existing residents don’t want their higher-end units to suffer because senior-citizen housing is built nearby instead of other high end units. This could be one of those situations where it would help to take a bigger view: Wheaton would like to offer more affordable housing for seniors and this land is available so perhaps property values can’t or shouldn’t be the overriding concern here.
4. More than ever because of the economic crisis, revenues matter in these situations. Some are concerned that the city, and therefore, taxpayers, might be on the hook if the development doesn’t work out in a certain way. This would be a strike against downtown redevelopment plans; the goal is to generate new revenues, property and sales taxes, not saddle the municipality with new costs.