Redevelopment sites, like the former Bank of America building and parking lot on either side of East Burlington Street at Harlem Avenue have Riverside officials wondering if the zoning code needs to allow a special approval process for larger planned unit developments. (Google Maps)

As Riverside officials begin looking at ways to revise the village’s zoning code to help spur commercial redevelopment, village trustees at their meeting on Nov. 7 directed the Riverside Planning and Zoning Commission to begin exploring the introduction of a planned unit development process.

Right now, the village’s code doesn’t include provisions for planned unit developments, a process that paves the way for developments that could be beneficial to a municipality but likely couldn’t be realized if the zoning code was strictly applied.

“For developers, hearing the word ‘variation’ is typically going to be a big hurdle,” said Riverside Community Development Director Sonya Abt. “And if that’s their only means for getting relief from the strict regulations of the zoning ordinance, there tends to be a little bit of pushback or they tend to be less interested unless it’s a piece [of property] that they really, really want.”

The goal of a planned unit development process, at its heart, is for a municipality to obtain a better development than it might otherwise get through the strict application of the zoning code.

The process allows the village to have a say on what it wants the development to accomplish, above and beyond a developer’s financial interests. For example, the village can require traffic impact analysis, and require sign off on things like building materials, landscaping requirements, lighting and parking.

“It’s a tradeoff and adds flexibility to the zoning, so that instead of having to prove a hardship and going through the variation process, the developer has a plan that overall benefits the community,” said Trustee Doug Pollock, who is the village administrator of Burr Ridge, where planned unit developments are allowed.

Many similarly sized suburbs surrounding Riverside – including LaGrange, LaGrange Park, Western Springs, Hinsdale, Brookfield and River Forest — allow planned unit developments, a process which triggers public hearings before the municipal plan commission and requires ultimate signoff by elected officials.

Brookfield has allowed planned unit developments since about 2006. The new process was introduced after a drawn-out, controversial variation process for a townhome development on the former Buresh’s Lobster House property at 31st Street and Prairie Avenue. That project was ultimately approved. 

After obtaining the zoning variations required, the developer changed design elements and materials, which drew criticism. The village had no recourse, however, because it didn’t have any basis to object. As long as the buildings conformed to the variations given, the village had no right to step in and ask for changes.

A planned unit development, in a sense, is a negotiated agreement where requirements can be laid out and enforced.

“The reason you relax the strict bulk requirements or strict zoning requirements in the district to justify the planned development,” said Village Attorney Lance Malina “is either creatively or aesthetically, it provides a benefit to the community that the board believes is a benefit to the whole community.”

The planned unit development discussion comes on the eve of Riverside taking a new look at its zoning code. Earlier this year, the village won a $35,000 grant from the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) to explore amending its zoning code.

With Bank of America vacating its property on either side of East Burlington Street at Harlem Avenue, officials want to see whether it might make sense to introduce language in the code that would allow for denser transit-oriented development at that site and perhaps elsewhere in the village.

That effort is expected to begin in 2020 after a planning consultant is selected to lead it.

While Pollock said he supported introducing planned unit developments to the zoning code, Trustee Wendell Jisa expressed some skepticism, saying he didn’t believe the village had very many locations that could accommodate planned unit developments.

“I think that’s a unique location at Harlem and Burlington, but I think that’s probably one of the only areas of real opportunity,” Jisa said. “I don’t think the residents would want these larger buildings that are downtown right now to kind of ruin the quaintness.”

Pollock responded that planned unit developments weren’t necessarily tall buildings.

“We use the example of taller buildings, but that’s not necessarily what a PUD would be,” he said. “It could be something completely different.”

For example, the Brookfield Public Library Board of Trustees used the village’s planned unit development process for its recently approved new library, slated to be built in 2020. In addition, at least one low-rise residential project has been approved in Brookfield through the planned development process.

It’s not clear exactly when the Riverside Planning and Zoning Commission will take up the subject of planned unit developments. Abt said part of that discussion would include Riverside looking at what sort of projects other communities are getting pitched as planned developments, what areas of the Riverside are appropriate for such developments and what exactly would trigger the planned development process.