Downers Grove seniors fear eviction if development moves forward
When 82-year-old Pete Riley and his wife, Pat, moved from Crest Hill into Downers Grove's Oak Trace senior living community in 2014, he planned on it being the last move the couple would make.
Now the Rileys and dozens of other residents fear they will be evicted from their townhouses or garden homes as the community's parent company, LifeSpace, considers a $150 million project that calls for replacing their homes with a new health center.
Riley said he specifically chose to live in Oak Trace because of the varying levels of available health care. But he also specifically chose to live in his 1,100-square-foot ranch-style home as opposed to an apartment.
"At 82, this was my last move, so we made sure this was a place that we enjoy and fits our budget," Riley said. "None of us oppose a new medical facility. We welcome it. But we don't welcome it on top of the home we chose to spend the rest of our lives in."
Riley said he believes the center could be built elsewhere on the nearly 39-acre campus without displacing anyone.
"They advertise this place is 69 percent open space," he said. "I think they have room for this and us."
Downers Grove Community Development Director Stan Popovich said the Oak Trace proposal includes construction of a four-story health care center, a new five-story residential independent-living building and 13 new residential villas. Popovich said Oak Trace also has proposed improvements to the existing apartment tower.
"Part of phase one would be the construction of the new health care center and to demolish some of the existing independent-living facilities," Popovich said. "Those are the folks who have voiced some concern."
Attorney Ed Manzke, who represents several of the residents who all have contracts to live in their homes, said they were informed in November that their residences would be torn down to make way for the new health center. He said residents were told they had six months to either move into apartments at Oak Trace or leave the community altogether.
Oak Trace Executive Director Chris Romick did not return a message seeking comment, but LifeSpace marketing officials released a statement via email Friday evening.
"We regret that there will be residents who will be affected by the planned health care center at Oak Trace retirement community. We have considered all options for the location of the new health venue and the current plans are in the best interest of all residents," the statement says. "We have been in communication with the affected residents since the announcement and have made offers of accommodations for relocating within our community and for their inconvenience. The new heath care center at Oak Trace is crucial to the ongoing commitment of care to our residents."
The Downers Grove plan commission voted March 6 to recommend the village board reject the development proposal, noting it would displace the senior citizens.
"It is truly troubling to see an organization like Oak Trace, that knows how vulnerable our senior citizens can be, seek to evict dozens of these seniors from their homes knowing they had valid contracts and knowing the fear and anxiety it would cause them," Manzke said. "If there are two things seniors don't like, it's anxiety and uncertainty."
The Downers Grove village council is scheduled to consider the proposal Tuesday evening but Village President Martin Tully said he believes residents are "conflating the narrow issue before the village council," which he says is the requested approval of an amendment to an existing planned unit development and LifeSpace's subsequent plan to exercise private contractual rights they believe they have to relocate certain of their residents.
"While I will continue to keep an open mind and consider any new information before casting a vote on this matter, I heard nothing at the first reading earlier this week, nor saw anything in the record before the plan commission, that suggested that the criteria for approval of a PUD amendment under our municipal code had not been satisfied. Indeed, the evidence presented demonstrated that all the criteria were met," Tully said Friday evening. "That said, I have also implored the private parties involved in the relocation dispute to embrace compassion for those affected and explore a potential solution that mitigates the impact on some members of our senior community. Just because an organization may have the right to do something does not necessarily make it wise to exercise that right."
Commissioner Greg Hose, the only other elected official to return a phone call on the subject, said he supports the Oak Trace plan.
"It's unfortunate some folks are going to be displaced. And I understand why they're angry," Hose said. "But the plan fits within the code, so the code says we have to allow it."
Hose said he hopes the folks who are displaced "are taken care of" when the third phase, which includes the new five-story building, is built.
Charmaine Gregory, a 15-year Oak Trace resident, said she hopes the village board follows the plan commission's recommendation.
"I love my neighborhood. I love the people here. The location is perfect. Everything is perfect," she said. "And then one day we were told we were going to be evicted from our home. We chose a home because we didn't want to live in an apartment."
The Rileys are still hoping Oak Trace officials will come back with a better plan.
"We're willing to listen to see if they come up with something better. We intend to sit and see what they offer," Riley said. "In the meantime, we're checking with every other retirement community out there to see what's available."