Ridgeland Estates development approved by Berwyn City Council

The Berwyn City Council on April 27 approved Ridgeland Estates, a 29-home subdivision on a 3.8-acre parcel in the 3000 block of Ridgeland Avenue adjacent to Freedom Middle School.

Homes in the Kasper LLC’s development will start at $400,000. The project includes 29 two-car garages and the extension of 29th Street east through the approximate center of the development.

Aldermen voted 5-3 to greenlight the proposal.

The four different votes needed to authorize the development all split 5-3 along political lines. Council members belonging to the Democratic Citizens of Berwyn party – Anthony Nowak (8th Ward), Rafael Avila (7th), Cesar Santoy (6th), Robert Fejt (4th) and Scott Lennon (1st) – voted in favor. Independents Alicia Ruiz (5th), Jeanine Reardon (3rd) and Jose Ramirez (2nd) voted against the proposal.

Fejt said residents “were split about 50/50” on the project before making a motion to approve the preliminary and final plan for the planned unit development.

Since March, residents have addressed council and school board meetings with concerns about traffic, the safety of Freedom students walking to school, gentrification and the fact that Berwyn – the densest city per capita in Illinois – lacks affordable housing. One letter in support of the project was received and read into the public record at the council meeting.

Fejt said “the facts” didn’t support claims of gentrification because 40 Berwyn homes have sold for more than $400,000 in the past nine months and of those, “three or four Latinx couples” had bought homes valued at more than $500,000.

“I hear the word gentrification being thrown around. It’s very easy to say that,” Fejt said. “In the last nine months, fact, 32 [Berwyn] homes have been sold for over $400,000, eight for over $500,000. Where’s the outrage there? There’s a lovely mix of people. Three or four of the highest homes over $500,000 were purchased by Latinx couples.”

The remark drew almost immediate online criticism from Berwyn North School District 98 board member Robert Pabon and Berwyn South School District 100 board member Elizabeth Jiminez, both of whom weighed in on social media as the council meeting was livestreamed April 27. Pabon will be sworn in as Berwyn’s fifth ward alderman in May.

“The idea that some or even a good amount of these homes were bought by Latinx families proves that this is not gentrification shows a lack of understanding on how gentrification works,” Pabon said.

On April 26, the night before the City Council meeting, about three dozen people attended a fourth ward meeting convened by Fejt, many reiterating concerns about Berwyn’s need for affordable housing, traffic and students’ safety.

“I’ve heard there was a traffic study done, but the traffic study was done in the middle of COVID, so it’s completely irrelevant to what normal traffic would be,” Chandra Szczblowski said.

Ridgeland Estates has been steered through the approval process by David Hulseberg, executive director of the Berwyn Development Corp., who weeks ago recommended it for passage in a staff report provided to the council. The BDC is funded by the city and tax increment financing dollars.

The Ridgeland property was in a TIF district, but the Ridgeland Estates homes will not be, Hulseberg said. TIF districts offer tax breaks to developers in hopes of spurring growth in property values through increased development. Kasper will not receive any TIF funding, Hulseberg has said.

At Fejt’s ward meeting April 26, Berwyn resident Michael Solway took to social media to question the role of the BDC in spending public dollars.

“It’s time for a resident oversight committee to bring some accountability to the BDC,” Solway said, pointing to the Depot District, where TIF funds have not solved the problem of years of empty storefronts. The Depot District TIF, which includes the area along the railroad tracks between Stanley and Windsor avenues, will shell out up to $250,000 to pay for a 28-space parking lot in Ridgeland Estates. Freedom Middle School will share the lot with Ridgeland residents, according to plans.

Those plans also call for a minimum lot size of slightly over 3,750 square feet, with 15-foot and 25-foot setbacks in front and backyards, respectively. There isn’t enough room on the subdivision parkway to plant the number of trees required by Berwyn’s city code. Kasper has proposed putting the trees on private property instead at the discretion of homeowners who would be responsible for cultivating and maintaining the trees.