Controversial Prairie Park townhouse plan clears hurdle in Wheeling

A controversial plan to build townhouses within Wheeling's Prairie Park condominium complex has received a preliminary go-ahead from the village board.

But the proposal - calling for 18 units in six two-story buildings - still awaits an official green light.

Located west of Milwaukee Avenue off Wolf Road, Prairie Park has four condominium buildings. A promised fifth building never was constructed, and the townhouses would be erected in its place on the north side of Prairie Park Drive.

Three Prairie Park residents spoke in favor of the proposal during last week's village board meeting.

They included Prairie Park homeowner association president Lee Waller, who noted the new homes would boost monthly assessment income for the association and Wheeling's property tax revenue.

The plan drew criticism from one speaker, Sherwin Begoun, who said the aesthetics of townhouses and condominium buildings don't match, nor do the lifestyles of the respective residents.

"Putting in townhomes is like mixing plaid and stripes," Begoun said. "It just doesn't work. It never will."

History of the site

The Prairie Park development was approved more than 18 years ago, and the buildings went up in stages on the nearly 18-acre site. The village contributed more than $10 million in property-tax revenue to the project.

Despite continued sales, the fifth condominium building no longer is economically feasible, said developer Jamie Smith of Smith Family Development. Rising construction costs are the culprit, he said.

Begoun urged village officials to offer Smith more money to put up the fifth condominium building. But no more tax dollars are coming for the project, Village Manager Jon Sfondilis said, nor has the developer requested any.

"The incentive provided for the project already included the fifth building and exhausted eligible expenses," Sfondilis said.

The townhouse plan

The Smith Family operation includes Jamie's father, Mark Smith, who unsuccessfully challenged Village President Pat Horcher for that elected post this year.

There was no mention of the elder Smith's political challenge during last week's board discussion. Jamie Smith and attorney Dan Shapiro led the presentation.

Each townhouse unit would have about 2,150 square feet of living space, unfinished basements that could be finished to add living space, attached garages and driveways.

Homes would cost about $500,000 each, Smith said.

The developers are seeking several exceptions to Wheeling building codes, including smaller parking stalls and less space between buildings.

When Wheeling's plan commission reviewed the proposal earlier this month, the group deadlocked 2-2 on requests to amend the original Prairie Park plans. That meant the advisory panel didn't recommend approval to the village board.

During last week's discussion, several trustees questioned the proposed 18-foot lengths of guest parking spots and driveways, saying they might be too short for longer cars to fit safely.

Shapiro said he believes prospective townhouse buyers are more likely to have traditionally sized autos rather than longer vehicles like oversized SUVs. Smith said the townhouses will be marketed to older couples without children at home and people near retirement age.

Trustees also questioned the prolonged presence of a sales trailer on the Prairie Park property.

"That trailer was supposed to have been gone a long time ago," Trustee Mary Papantos said. "My concern (is) we'll never see it leave."

Shapiro asked for permission to keep the trailer in place until a model townhouse unit is completed.

Trustee Mary Krueger said she's concerned about whether fire truck drivers can navigate tight street corners in the proposed development. In response, Shapiro said builders worked with fire officials and insisted the plan complies with village codes.

Eventually, trustees unanimously gave the plans a preliminary thumbs-up. Final board approval could come later this summer, after another review by the plan commission and the board.

One more agency

But that won't be the last bureaucratic step for the plan.

Because the homes would be built just south of a channel for the nearby - and flood-prone - Des Plaines River, the proposal needs approval from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, which oversees floodwater abatement in Cook County.

Horcher wished Smith and his team luck and said he hopes the project progresses smoothly.

Krueger expressed similarly positive thoughts.

"I'm really hopeful that this project will complete the Prairie Park community in a really timely fashion," she said.

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This architect's rendering shows what the townhouses proposed for the Prairie Park development in Wheeling would look like. Courtesy of Village of Wheeling
  Wheeling officials have raised concerns about the sales trailer near one of the entrances to Prairie Park condominiums. Paul Valade/
  Wheeling officials have tentatively approved a plan to build townhouses on vacant land originally set aside for a fifth condominium building in the Prairie Park development. Paul Valade/
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