“There is no zoning change.”
At a meeting hosted by the Northcenter Neighborhood Association (NNA) Tuesday night at Revere Park, Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) reiterated his statement that no deal exists to approve a 71-unit affordable housing rental complex proposed for the site of the former Illinois Battery, 2437-53 W. Irving Park Rd. “The zoning remains M-1 [for manufacturing],” he said. “Nothing has changed.”
Attendees were not appeased. Now that the affordable housing genie is out of the bottle, so to speak, there’s no putting it back in, and the issue has exposed a clear divide between what urban planners believe makes sense for the city and what residents feel is right for their neighborhood.
Setting aside the misinformation that spreads like wildfire across the Internet these days — residents from the Lathrop Homes are not, repeat not, being relocated to Northcenter — lines are being drawn between those who want to maintain the status quo in terms of housing and those who see a need for change.
“We have parking, we have room to move around; this isn’t Lincoln Park,” said Kirk Wojack, who’s lived in Northcenter the entirety of his 36 years. “I’m not opposed to affordable housing,” he added, but like many of the approximately 70 individuals who turned out for the meeting, the density of the aforementioned development raised a number of red flags, including the potential impact on traffic, parking and Northcenter’s already crowded elementary schools.
“It’s a real concern,” conceded guest speaker Peter Skosey, Northcenter homeowner and vice president of the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC), a nonprofit that develops solutions for regional growth around Chicago. (He’s also working on Bus Rapid Transit.) “The response to that real concern is not to stifle development and slow the growth of the city. I’m not a car-hater but I am adverse to have our planning dictated by where we park our cars…that’s not a reason to stop development.”
According to Skosey, from 2000 to 2008, while Northcenter gained 4,000 single family homes and condos, 6,000 rental units evaporated, for a net loss of 2,000 residential units. Those single family homes typically are out of the financial reach of most social workers, teachers, police officers, food service staff and daycare workers, he said, effectively pricing them out of available housing in Northcenter–a neighborhood in which many of them might work, but can’t afford to live.
“We need to grow the population,” Pawar stated frankly, adding that Mayor Rahm Emanuel has made this a top priority given Chicago’s decrease of 250,000 citizens in the last census. Affordable housing (which MPC refers to as “work force housing” to avoid confusion with low-income housing) and density are going to have to be part of the conversation.
Regarding the Illinois Battery site, which again, is still zoned for manufacturing, Pawar said, “I would love to see great retail there.” The cost of cleaning up the contaminated property, however, is prohibitive to any developer, he said, hence the density of the residential proposal, necessary from a purely business standpoint for the buyer to have a shot at recouping his investment. “Hopefully we’ll find an M-1 user, but there’s no project at this point.”
The larger issue, according to Pawar, and one that goes well beyond what structure may or may not rise up at Illinois Battery, “is that people need different kinds of housing in different stages of their lives.” Which may mean rental and it may mean affordable in order to retain senior citizens or to woo young urbanites away from cities like Charlotte.
NNA espouses a similar philosophy, which landed the association in hot water with its neighbors, if anonymous postings online are to be believed.
At Tuesday’s meeting, NNA’s president Julie Hobert emphasized that the group did not support the Illinois Battery project (“It’s kind of a moot point because this project isn’t going through”) but does promote diversifying Northcenter’s housing stock. In a letter clarifying the organization’s position, she wrote: “Part of NNA’s mission and one of our strategic goals for this year is to make sure that our neighborhood remains financially feasible for its long-time residents…. Diverse housing is able to accommodate people in many different stages of their life, from recent graduate to family housing to senior housing, whether you’re an artist or a financier. We believe this kind of diversity creates stability in a community.”
That NNA doesn’t speak for all of Northcenter became evident when a new neighborhood organization popped up, the West 47th Neighborhood Association. CSJ requested an interview with the fledgling group and received an email reply, signed “West 47.”
“We are a neighborhood group that is presently in the formative process and we organized solely for the purpose of discovering facts regarding proposals that had been presented for the Illinois Battery site. We have never taken a position regarding affordable housing nor any other issues. Our concerns were focused on the proposed monstrous building and the effects of such a large building on the community (e.g. schools, parks, parking, traffic, safety), the use of TIF funds and other tax incentives as well as the failure to include the community in the proposal as well as the other much smaller proposal which was denied its zoning change request, possibly the result of a neighborhood association i.e. NNA.” [Note: The smaller proposal was for three-bedroom market rate condos, which Pawar's zoning commission rejected, citing a glut of similar housing in the area.]
Though no official spokesperson for West 47 stepped forward at Tuesday’s meeting, it was apparent that most of those in attendance weren’t buying the rosy portrait being painted of affordable housing tenants: those young teachers, recent college grads and Starbucks baristas who all commute via bicycle or public transportation.
“You will not bring in the people you’re talking about,” said one gentleman. Fear is that under lax management, as many as five tenants could crowd a single one-bedroom unit (which Pawar granted is allowable under city ordinance) or that the building could easily become overrun by unscrupulous renters, with long-time residents still harboring memories of gangs.
Skosey’s confession that “we have no idea” who would ultimately occupy any property — a situation “not that dissimilar to the private sector” — did little to ease neighbors’ minds. Nor did his statement that overcrowding could occur in any type of housing win him many friends. “If you’re talking about how many people are in a unit, you could have just as many in a three-bedroom condo. What people are you talking about?”
Colleen Zinck was one of the more passionate residents speaking out against not just the affordable housing project, but any residential proposal. “I feel like everyone who is opposed is being portrayed as racist and close-minded,” she said, viewing Skosey’s remark about “what people” as “baiting.”
“I just don’t want any housing,” she said. The new mom grew up in Northcenter and is now a homeowner in the neighborhood. “I’ve been waiting my whole life for Irving and Western to develop.” Instead of condos, apartments or single family homes, she’d like to see retail and restaurants not only at Illinois Battery but surrounding properties, someplace she could pop into for a bit of shopping or a coffee, not more housing to simply walk past. “I’ve seen what happens when you go crazy with condos,” she said. Zinck pointed to the difference between the bustling Roscoe Street and a parallel section of Belmont Avenue. “Belmont is a canyon of condos, it’s dead,” she said. “I’d rather have the status quo than housing.”
For the moment, Zinck’s wish has been granted, as there are no viable proposals — residential, manufacturing or retail — on the table for the former Illinois Battery site. Should a project materialize, it’s clear that no one development will please everyone in Northcenter.
“Controversy is not a bad thing,” said Pawar. “It got neighbors out. We need to be able to come together to talk about issues like density and overcrowding in our schools. There is a need to talk about things we should flesh out as a community.”
Added NNA’s Hobert, “It’s a question of keeping this conversation open.”