In a 35-13 vote, Wicker Park and Bucktown community residents disapproved of a proposed three building, 54-unit residential rental project in the 1st Ward along Winnebago Avenue, starting at Leavitt Avenue. The new development would be in the new 32nd Ward, as defined by January’s new ward redistricting vote. Currently, the property is in the 1st ward.
The vote took place in the community room of the Wicker Park/Bucktown Chicago Public Library branch, where a 75-minute meeting to discuss a zoning change for the proposed project occurred. Residents cast their ballots throughout the meeting. A community member then tallied up the ballots after all the votes were cast.
During a lively question-and-answer session punctuated by bursts of crosstalk, some 60 residents expressed concerns to representatives from project developers MCZ Development, project architect John Hanna, and attorney James Banks, who represents the developers.
In addition to Hanna and Banks, MCZ Development head Michael Lerner addressed questions regarding potential change in property values, property density, project management, car and foot traffic, and clean-up of the property, a former junk yard.
But while project proponents stressed what they saw as the positive benefits the development would have for the neighborhood, residents ultimately were not convinced by their arguments.
The meeting took place at the behest of Ald. Joe Moreno (1st), who expressed tentative support for the project at the meeting’s 6:00 p.m. start time. Moreno used his history as a resident to explain that, while “not all developments are good,” he desired development on the property.
“I’m leaning toward the support of this [project] for several reasons,” Moreno said. “One is because it is an empty lot, and I’ve had conversations with several neighbors on Winnebago who are impacted by the uncleanliness and vagrancy [in the lot].
“Secondly, for a reason that’s important for me, is affordable housing. The more units we have, the more affordable units we can provide,” Moreno said. [Moreno speaks often of growing up in affordable housing.]
City code dictates that 10 percent of units the size of the proposed development must be dedicated to affordable housing, defined as being rented at 60 percent of the neighborhood median income.
Additionally, Moreno said that, as initially proposed, he “wasn’t that excited” about what was then a 60-unit project.
After meetings with the Bucktown Triangle Association, Wicker Park Committee, and the Bucktown Community Organization, the developers then proposed the current unit count of 54. Under the previous Planned Development for the project, the unit count was 45. The developers seek to take the project out of Planned Development, and to re-zone the property.
Constructing the buildings requires a zoning change, and a meeting to discuss the change is required by the Alderman, but not the city.
After a brief question-and-answer session with attendees, Moreno left the library community room to attend another meeting. Representatives from MCZ Development then took the lead of the meeting to discuss project details in depth.
According to MCZ Development, the proposed building would be a total estimated 42,000 square feet, and would be located at 1711 – 1753 N. Winnebago Avenue. The property would be for three five-story buildings. All 54 units would be rentals, and there would be 78 parking spots.
Two of the buildings would have 17 rental units, while the third would have 20. The units would be a mix of one, two, and three bedroom rentals priced at $2,000 per month. Construction on the property is estimated to take between 12 and 15 months.
Supporters of the proposed building praised the developers for coming up with a plan for developing a project for a property long seen by some residents as a nuisance and an eyesore.
One resident, a young male appearing to be in his 20s, said during the meeting, “I like the project. I think it’s great. It’s better than nothing. Good luck.”
Another resident, an older man with a young female child by his side, identified himself as the president of the development across the street from the proposed buildings, stated he was strongly for the proposed project. He said the vacant property currently contributes to “criminal behavior and property crime.
“I think it’s an excellent idea, and I applaud these people for coming in here and trying to develop this property,” the man said. “It’s going to be excellent for our community, and you people have every right to question the little details, but the big picture is that we need this in this neighborhood. If you lived here, you would want it.”
Detractors meanwhile decried what they saw as too much density in a neighborhood with too much traffic. Additionally, residents who were against the project compared the size of it to a big-box store, and questioned the wisdom in the influx of renters to a community area largely made up of property owners.
For her part, Dina Petrakis, a resident who said she lived on Leavitt Street, objected to what she saw as a limited amount of green space on the property, as well as the fact that only one foot of sidewalk would be available for such space as a result of the plan.
“We’re all neighbors here. You’re taking every possible square inch, as far as I can tell, and I just don’t think it lends anything to the neighborhood,” Petrakis said. “That little one foot strip of green space is not going to ameliorate the fact that if I look up, it’s cool, but if I’m walking, I might as well be walking next to a prison.”
Resident Todd Pugh agreed with Petrakis’s assertion.
“Regardless of whether it’s owner or rental, it’s a very pretty building,” Pugh said.
“In the drawings up there, it looks like it has a generous setback. But in looking at the diagrams, there’s no setback,” Pugh said. “And that is completely out of character for Winnebago. It might be OK for Western Avenue or Milwaukee [Avenue], or even the Gold Coast, but that’s not the character of the neighborhood we’re in.”
A setback is the distance that a building is set back from a street or road.
Representatives took the criticisms in stride, but insisted on the economic viability of their project. In an interview after the final vote count was announced, architect John Hanna said they would consider the suggestion of some residents to reduce the number of proposed parking spaces in order to increase the amount of green space the property may have.
“We’re going to look into that,” Hanna said. “We might make a couple of concessions. Who knows? It’s up to the Alderman now.”
-By Jon Graef