The qualities that attracted John Sears to the 1800 block of West Newport as a potential home for his daycare business — it’s quiet and safe — are the very reasons that area residents oppose his plan. It’s quiet and safe, and they want to keep it that way.
During a recent community meeting held at the site of the proposed daycare — 1825 W. Newport, which formerly housed Yolanda Lorente’s dressmaking operation — numerous objections were raised regarding a requested zoning change that would convert the property’s designation from M1-2 (for manufacturing) to B2-2 (for business). Concerns largely centered on the increased traffic the daycare would create, particularly during drop-off and pick-up hours, on this otherwise sleepy one-way street, which dead-ends into Ravenswood. Longtime residents also raised the specter of previous zoning conversions in which developers and ousted Ald. Ted Matlak promised one type of project, only to erect something entirely different.
“I am not a developer,” declared Sears, who represents the third generation of his family to work for the business founded by his grandmother, the Mary Sears Children’s Academy. “We are very passionate about childcare.”
Sears purchased the building on Newport under the assumption that it was zoned for daycare, which the M1 designation does allow. (It also permits correctional facilities and stables, just as an FYI.) He wasn’t aware, however, of the restrictions attached to the zoning, which limits the size of a daycare operation to 4,500 square feet.
“That’s about half of one of these floors,” Tom Bader, chairman of the Roscoe Village Neighbors zoning committee, explained to the packed crowd of close to 60 people. B2 zoning has no such restrictions on square footage, he added, but the “dash-2″ amendment regulates the overall height and size of a building’s structure.
If given zoning relief, Sears’ plan calls for classrooms on the first floor of the two-story building, which would accommodate as many as 100 children from infants through kindergarten; the second floor would provide an indoor play space, as mandated by daycare licensing requirements. Though neighbors were cheered to learn that the number of children wasn’t nearly as large as rumors had suggested — the number 500 was bandied about in community communications — many were still unsympathetic towards Sears.
Pat Spaulding, who lives in one of the rowhouses across the street from what would be the daycare, helped collect 165 signatures opposing the zoning change. “I think it’s ridiculous for somebody to buy a building for $2 million and not know the zoning,” said Spaulding, who happens to work in real estate. “Why should we give the permission to rezone?”
In fact, nearly a dozen M1-2 properties on Newport and nearby Cornelia and Eddy have been rezoned; all were changed to RS3, resulting in the construction of single family homes. “I would like to see loft spaces,” Spaulding said.
Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) and his chief of staff, Paul Sajovec, were on hand to tamp down some of the more argumentative attendees and to counter misinformation, particularly the notion that if the zoning is changed some future owner of the building could erect a much taller structure or carve it up into a dense condo development.
“This is a Type 1 zoning change,” said Sajovec, meaning Sears has to submit detailed drawings and plans for the space. It is that specific plan and only that plan which comes before City Council for passage.
“New owners who want to raise the height would need another zoning change,” said Waguespack.
The bigger question looming over the proceedings: If not a daycare, then what? “We marketed the property extensively and thoroughly,” said the broker who represented the Lorentes in the sale of the building (he preferred not to be identified by name). “No one could make sense of the space. What alternatives are there for the size and space and layout?”
RVN’s Bader was mum on where the zoning committee stands on the issue. “We’re here to listen as well,” he said when asked about his position.
The organization’s “Principles Regarding Land Use, Development and Zoning,” handed out at the meeting, offered conflicting views of how the committee might rule. One section states that a “diverse mix of building stock is an essential attribute of Roscoe Village,” with support for “adaptive reuse of existing buildings,” while another principle firmly holds to RS3 as the predominant single-family zoning on residential streets, allowing for a change only when it “represents the least intrusive zoning solution.”
Sajovec doesn’t anticipate RVN will discuss the Newport property until the zoning committee’s September meeting. Additional community forums may be held for further feedback and input.
For neighbors like Jimmy Smith, a 45-year resident of the 1900 block of West Eddy, reassurances about the size of the building and the scope of the daycare operation were enough to sway his opinion about the zoning change. “I was initially against it,” he said. “This sounds like a better option. People will be happy when they see the little kids.”
Manufacturing Legacy in Roscoe Village
The building at 1825 W. Newport is one of the last vestiges of a formerly thriving manufacturing district. The Wahl-Eversharp Pencil Factory, now condos, was located just across the alley from Sears’ proposed daycare; in 1937, the factory was the scene of Chicago’s first industrial sitdown strike. Workers demanded an increase in wages: 35 cents an hour for female employees, up from 27 cents, and 43 cents an hour for male employees, up from 33 cents.
Reports turned up by Julie Lynch, the librarian who oversees the Northside Neighborhood Historical Collection at Sulzer Library, portray a raucous, if short-lived, strike, marked by drinking, dancing and games of poker and dice. Policemen surrounded the plant to protect some $150,000 worth of gold used to make pen points. Twenty-five of the female strikers were whisked away by fathers and husbands who “took their womenfolk home in unceremonious fashion.”
By comparison, the fuss over a zoning change seems rather tame.