Parking concerns, and speculation about how its use might subvert the proposed commercial nature of Wilmette’s extended downtown, weren’t enough last week to torpedo plans to turn the former Garden House property on Green Bay Road into new space for a medical group now located on Wilmette Avenue.
Wilmette village trustees who reviewed the case June 28 gave developer Larry Debb’s request for zoning variances the five votes it needed to pass, despite it having received a negative recommendation from the Zoning Board of Appeals.
Although trustees didn’t fault the Zoning Board for its 3-2 split decision — saying that the board members made a decision consistent with its mission — they ultimately agreed with Debb that it was unlikely another retailer would want the former outdoor furniture store at 521 Green Bay Road, despite its commercial zoning, any time soon.
Trustees also decided that approving parking and setback variance requests would keep a valued business in Wilmette, while indirectly adding to the possibility of more sales tax for the village.
Trustees Mike Basil, Julie Wolf, Cameron Krueger and Alan Swanson, as well as Village President Chris Canning, voted in favor. Basil and Krueger cited the developer’s plans to transform the institute’s current 1144 Wilmette Ave. quarters into retail space as evidence that turning the Green Bay property into a nonretail business would not necessarily cut down on Wilmette’s sales tax revenue.
“I think it’s essential that we vote in favor of this,” Basil said.
Only Trustee Ted McKenna voted against approval. Approving zoning variances to allow the Illinois Bone and Joint Institute to move onto the property, he said, would effectively take that section of Green Bay Road out of the largely commercial nature envisaged for the area by the downtown master plan.
As proposed, Debb and the development team plan to demolish all but 17,000 square feet of the current 32,000-square-foot Garden House, which has been empty since earlier this year. Debb said his team decided that doing so in order to provide more parking was the only reasonable way to make use of the property.
The remodeled smaller building would provide first-floor space for a new imaging machine for the medical institute, plus more general and private office space for doctors on the second floor than doctors currently have on Wilmette Avenue.
Basil said he understands worries about parking — development plans call for roughly 40 parking spaces between onsite parking, parking along Green Bay and some in the secondary Jewel grocery lot to the south, while the commercial zoning for the property would require roughly 80 spaces. But the Garden House operated successfully with only street parking and fewer than 10 onsite spots, he noted, and any retail business that moved onto the site would face the same parking difficulties.
Basil also warned the board against “nitpicking to death” a proposal, when “we have space after space of empty lots and empty buildings” in the area.
He and other trustees, also said they believed Debb and his team were willing to work with village staff to mitigate some of the foreseeable problems.
Debb agreed, noting that the medical group, which operates more than a dozen branches in the Chicago area, wants to stay in Wilmette despite having access to build from scratch in Evanston’s Central Street business district.
Despite sharing some of McKenna’s concerns about how a non-commercial business on that block of Green Bay could affect long term downtown development, and despite disagreeing with several points in the developer’s traffic study, Swanson, himself a traffic engineer, eventually voted in favor of the proposal.