In 1925, when Louis Miller founded L. Miller & Son Lumber Company at 1815 W. Division Street, there were horses and carriages on the street. Today, as Miller’s grandson, Bob Miller, puts it, “I’m very uncomfortable doing business with baby buggies and lift trucks. The neighborhood has changed. Economics necessitated that we sell the property, but we still love the community and we will continue to be part of it.”
Yesterday evening, approx. 30 members of the community attended a public meeting at LaSalle II School, 1148 N. Honore St., hosted by First Ward Ald. Proco Joe Moreno, and his chief of staff Raymond Valadez, to discuss Miller Lumber’s next chapter.
This past September, the 27,000 sq. ft. property was sold for $3.2 million to Smithfield Properties, a downtown developer that will be working with Lettuce Entertain You Restaurants to develop, pending zoning approval, a proposed five story glass and steel mixed used commercial and residential property on the site of the longtime lumberyard.
Above the two street-level Lettuce Entertain You eateries, 11 rental units are planned on each of four flours (9 1-bedrooms, two studios), for a total of 52 units, with 10% of those units allocated toward affordable housing based on income. Square footage will begin at 670 sq. ft and rents are expected to range from $1400-$1600. Each unit will enjoy a balcony terrace.
There will be 42 parking spaces allocated for the building’s tenants (which is more spaces than the 15 assigned for an 11-story 99-unit property just two blocks east at 1601 W. Division that’s coincidentally being developed by Rob Buono, a former Smithfield Properties partner, as we reported on last week).
Of the lumberyard’s next chapter, Miller said to The Pipeline in a pre-meeting telephone conversation, “It’s not sad. It’s a happy thing. Nostalgically, people always say that, ‘we miss businesses like yours,’ but realistically it’s better thing for the consumer to go to the big box stores that can afford to inventorize. We are a specialty shop within our industry. A lot of people just do emails with us, they don’t necessarily walk into our showroom. Without foot traffic you can’t afford to inventorize. That’s the job for the big home centers.”
Bob and longtime employee, Tracy Meredith, now president of the company, whom he dubs “the fourth generation” (both of Miller’s sons opted for careers in law rather than lumber) utilize about 5,000 sq. feet of their property for storage and inventory, whereas at one point they allocated 17,000 ft. to inventory.
It was this fact, coupled with the high taxes and costs associated with caring for such a large property that inspired Miller to begin looking for the right buyer three years ago. “Like most real estate, the more we kept it going, the more of a burden it became. We were greatly under-utilizing our space,” Bob said, noting that Miller Lumber plans to continue doing business in the city through September at its current location and is working on finding a new space, possibly a small showroom on Division Street.
Bob’s ties to Division Street go back to the age of eight, “When I made up my mind that this is what I wanted to do,” as he put it. “I enjoyed the whole ride, from glazing the windowsills to being a stock boy and running the company.” Bob officially took ownership of Miller Lumber in 1976, when he was 27, after his father passed away.
“I love the community on Division. I grew up here and went to the school where the meeting is going to be at tonight. We have the best great young people here, the widest sidewalks, the right mix of residents and businesses, there’s nothing like it. I hope the community comes out to listen to the party that’s developing the site and wants their support, and as long as they’re not doing anything that’s harmful to the neighborhood, I hope that they get their support. I hope people have an open mind and see the value that I see,” he said.
Indeed, the people that came out to the meeting seemed mostly in favor of the project. Reservations pertaining to parking, the size of the building, and its proximity to LaSalle School were addressed. Smith said he’d already discussed concerns with LaSalle’s principal and promised that there will be no construction during days of standardized testing. Smith also plans to work with the alderman to explore ways to help make the apartments available to teachers working at our neighborhood’s 10 schools.
“I live next to the school. Parking is full on weekends. Where are all the cars coming here gonna go?” One resident asked, to which Smith replied that there are spaces on the LaSalle school lot that are leased by the Chicago Board of Education and shared among the valets at various Division Street restaurants.
Currently 1815 W. Division has B-2-Zoning, which means that it can be as high as four stories, but not five. Smith is hoping to attain B-3-Zoning, which would allot for a five story building.
“Can’t you do a high quality property within the current zoning?” asked Scott Rappe of the East Village Association’s Planning, Preservation, and Development Committee.
Rappe suggested that Smith consider constructing a building that fits into the Division street-scape and surrounding properties by building four stories and 39 units vs. five stories and 42 units. Read the EVA’s initial response to Smithfield’s proposal here.
An architect on Smith’s team replied that, “If you want to keep Division Street vital, you need high density,” to which not everyone in the crowd seemed “sold” on. The same resident who’d voiced his concerns on parking said he didn’t like the fact that “more affordable housing” was being used as a bargaining chip in terms of Smithfield advocating for four residential floors of units instead of the three residential floors they’re currently permitted to build under the existing zoning.
Smith reminded Rappe that he’s aware that he’s certainly “not entitled” to B-3 zoning and that “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t need your decisions.” Alderman Moreno mentioned that he’s maintaining a neutral stance on the project and wanted to hear the community’s input on the matter. If the project’s zoning is approved, construction would take eight to nine months, per Smith, who “has agreed to take another look at those issues before pressing on with the current proposal,” per an EVA Facebook update issued today.
The final question at the meeting involved pets. At the moment, no furry friends are envisioned to be permitted to live amongst the future tenants of 1815 W. Division. For the record, Smith’s not much of a dog person. Or cat.