A plan to construct a four-story, mixed-use retail/residential development on the site of the former Henninger Pharmacy cleared its first hurdle last week.

Members of the Riverside Zoning Board of Appeals recommended granting four of the five zoning variances sought by Village Center Development Inc. for the project, which calls for over 10,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space, 20 luxury condominium units on three upper floors to replace the vacant former drug store at 13-15 Longcommon Road in the village’s downtown.

Zoning Board members voted 4-1 to recommend allowing the development to be four stories tall instead of three, allowing 20 units instead of 18 and allowing the setback along Burlington Street to be 5 feet instead of 10. In all the cases, Greg Soldano, Ray Rezner, Denny Georgopulos and Robert Gruber voted for granting the variations. Zoning Board Chair Jean Sussman voted against granting all three.

The board unanimously voted to grant a variance to reduce the width of a ramp to underground parking from 24 to 14 feet.

Developers did not receive the recommendation they were seeking with respect to parking, however. The project plans fall short of the required retail parking spaces for a development of this size, and Zoning Board members voted 3-2 against granting the variation that would have allowed 36 underground residential parking spaces and seven retail spaces. Rezner and Gruber voted to grant the variance.

“I’m heartened,” Nick Mlade, one of the two developers of the Henninger property, said after the meeting. “But they merely make recommendations to the village trustees. After that, we have three more committees to go through and further reviews.”

The village board considered the Zoning Board’s recommendations at yesterday’s regularly scheduled meeting after press time.

If the village board gave its blessing to the plan, the developers will need to submit an application for a site plan review to the village’s Plan Commission. That application triggers automatic review by both the village’s Preservation and Landscape Advisory commissions.

The comments of the two commissions will go back to the Plan Commission, which will consider the feedback and make its own comments. Once the site plan is approved, the developers will be able to apply for building permits.

The Feb. 16 Zoning Board meeting featured comments from both supporters and opponents of the plan, and several members of the village board were in attendance, including Village President Harold J. Wiaduck.

Mlade represented Village Center Development Ltd., and was accompanied by the architects hired to design the project, Robert Kirk and Anthony Beccasio of Arlington Heights-based Group A Architects.

“As a business owner I think we do need stimulus downtown,” said Eric Sundstrom, a local Realtor and a vice president of the Riverside Chamber of Commerce. “It’s essential … for revitalization to occur.”

Riverside resident Diane Legge Kemp, an architect, also expressed support for the plan, saying that the design allayed her fears that the four-story development would appear massive.

“I think the building looks very good,” she said. “I was very concerned about a four-story building, but you did very well concealing the four stories. It’s certainly a building that’s going in the right direction.”

In all, five residents spoke in favor of the development. Seven residents went on the record to oppose the development, including Kathleen and Gerald Gitz, the owners of Aunt Diana’s Fudge on Burlington Street and Dr. Samuel Chmell, who owns the one-story office building directly north of the Henninger site. All three wrote letters to the Zoning Board stating their disapproval.

Kathleen Gitz called the development proposal an “eyesore” that would make it “more difficult for customers to patronize our business.”

Chmell, meanwhile, said the development would restrict access to his rear parking lot and would prohibit him from any upward expansion of his building in the future, devaluing the property in the process.

Mlade said he had offered Chmell between $425,000 and $450,000 for the property in the past, but that Chmell had declined to take the offer. Chmell said Mlade “never made any formal offer to me at all.”

According to a September 2004 appraisal of Chmell’s property, if Chmell’s property were to be included as part of the Village Center Development plan, its estimated value would be $600,000. However, were it not be included in the plan, the land would be worth $225,000.

“We’re willing to work with him,” Mlade said. “But it’s kind of late.”

The development was also panned by Thomas Barr, who read from a lengthy prepared statement in which he disputed hardships claimed by the developers. He accused Mlade of asking for variations “based almost exclusively upon a desire to achieve a higher profit from the property. More building in less space means more profit.”

Barr also claimed that the development would adversely affect the surrounding neighborhood, saying that “the size of this building exceeds what can be built on that site without altering the essential character of the locality as envisioned by our Plan Commission and discussed in hearings and workshops.”

Commission Chair Sussman expressed reservations about several aspects of the plan, voting down four of the five requested by the developers. She indicated a discomfort in voting to approve such a high-density project without the developers proving an economic hardship.

“I have nothing but someone saying there will be a hardship,” Sussman said. “I feel uncomfortable [voting for this] without knowing any of the numbers.”

Rezner, however, disagreed.

“I believe their description of unique circumstances is adequate evidence as to the uniqueness of the property and the unique importance to the plight of the downtown area,” Rezner said.

With respect to the issue of parking, the village board may go a long way toward deciding that question. There is a provision in the zoning code that allows a developer to pay a cash penalty in lieu of providing adequate parking for retail spaces.

However, there is no dollar figure yet associated with that buyout clause. Should the village choose to make the buyout option prohibitively expensive, the developers would find themselves going back to the drawing board. Or, the village board could decide to make the price attractive enough for the developers to shell out the cash and resolve the issue.