We don’t know who Scott Borstein is, but he’s not a popular man in Northcenter these days. Nearly a year ago, Borstein filled out a form proposing an affordable housing development at 2437-53 W. Irving Park Rd., site of the abandoned home of Illinois Battery. Neighbors just now got wind of the paperwork and after a flurry of exchanges on EveryBlock, often characterizing the project as low-income, brought their protests to Ald. Ameya Pawar’s Ward Council meeting, held last night at the Addison Street Community Church (2132 W. Addison St.).
On one side of the argument: Neighboring homeowners who likened the building to a slap in the face of current residents and an attempt to sneak something past their review. Offended at being portrayed as classist or elitist, they outlined concerns that the proposed 71-unit rental development (52 one-bedroom units, 19 two-bedroom units) would increase traffic, tax already limited parking, waste TIF dollars, drag down property values, introduce a criminal element and/or exacerbate the overcrowding at Bell Elementary (3730 N. Oakley Ave.).
On the other side of the debate: Proponents of affordable housing, including some members of Pawar’s Zoning Advisory Committee, which includes builders, architects and real estate lawyers. “My own adult children, they can’t afford to live here,” said Martha Cameron, ZAC member. In her mind, the positives of replacing a polluted site with new construction and creating affordable apartments for “our grown children and empty-nesters” outweighed the negatives.
Caught in the middle: Ald. Pawar. Or, more accurately, Ald. Pawar’s process for dealing with zoning change requests and his efforts at transparency.
Any request for a zoning change — no matter how feasible — is posted to the alderman’s website as long as someone takes the time to fill out an application, a practice few of Pawar’s peers mirrors. The ZAC convenes monthly to review applications, meets with developers and then makes a recommendation to Pawar, which he is free to disregard. The reason the affordable housing project has languished for the better part of a year, he explained, is because there hasn’t been anything to accept or reject — it’s still just an idea on paper. The reason he hasn’t brought the proposal to the community’s attention is because “there is no deal…there is nothing happening.” The developer hasn’t secured financing or inked a contract with the owner of the site.
“Just because someone proposes a project doesn’t mean it’s going to happen,” said Pawar. “People have already decided that I decided. This project is still in its infancy. From this deal’s standpoint, I don’t know if it’s likely to get past filling out a form.”
That said, Pawar does support affordable housing in the 47th Ward, adding that such developments already exist (eg, the Martha Washington senior complex at 2324 W. Irving Park Rd.). “What’s not, in my opinion, a good conversation is being scared of people who make less money,” he said. “The idea there isn’t need in this ward … there are four [food] pantries in our ward. And that’s not people who are homeless or coming from other parts of the city, these are people that are in our ward.”
Indeed, a different proposal for the same site would have erected 30 three-bedroom units, which ZAC rejected largely because there’s already a glut of housing stock to address potential tenants of such a development.
Senior citizens are being priced out of the ward, Pawar noted, as are young professionals. The proposed development that sparked the at times heated discussion would target individuals with incomes between $25,000 and $49,000 — a figure the alderman pointed out would apply to most of his staff. “They should be allowed to live here. Economic diversity is a good thing.”
Factoring people’s feelings about affordable housing out of the equation, what emerged from Wednesday night’s meeting is that a number of long-time residents, many of whom had grown accustomed to dealing with Ald. Schulter, Pawar’s predecessor, feel shut out of the political process.
After taking office, Pawar substituted the Ward Council for the old system of precinct captains. A slew of new block clubs formed, with representation at the Ward Council, often without the knowledge of members of existing community groups. Communication has shifted almost exclusively to the Internet, in no small part because Pawar lacks Schulter’s war chest and doesn’t have money for mailings. Having built an email list from scratch, now up to 6,000 addresses, he confessed that a year into his term reaching out to all 60,000 of the ward’s residents has been a challenge.
Homeowners who may once have been the first to hear about a development now found themselves receiving second-hand and often inaccurate information. The misinformation specifically related to the affordable housing project had created a climate of hostility, which neighbors were hoping to quell with facts, said one attendee.
“This is all part of being new in politics,” said Pawar. “Come to the table and tell me what you want.”
What folks want is to be included in any discussion about major construction and economic developments, to which Pawar readily agreed. He cited his office’s handling of the Mariano’s planned for Lawrence Avenue, and the numerous community meetings held to apprise residents of the project, as a model for what neighbors could expect.
“I never make a decision unilaterally,” he said. “My commitment is that it’s not going to happen in a room where I say ‘yea’ or ‘nay.’”
As the meeting concluded, having run a half-hour long without addressing 90 percent of the planned agenda, it was doubtful any minds were changed regarding the broader issue of whether affordable housing is healthy for a community or not but residents did leave with a better understanding of the way business is now conducted in the ward.
“In the past, we found out about things after a wink and a nod and a handshake,” said Tim Gibbons. “This is a good process, but we need to continue to avail ourselves of it.”