Proposals for Lawrence discussed at meeting


Proposals for a city-owned parcel at 5201-09 W. Lawrence Ave. and concerns about a planned "pedestrian street" zoning designation for the Milwaukee-Lawrence area were discussed at the Aug. 27 meeting of the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association.

Few details of the proposals for Lawrence have been made public. One of the projects calls for the construction of a retail-residential building by the Mega Group, a local developer, and another plan calls for construction of a two-story photography museum, which is being supported by a group of photographers and local investors.

Each proposal would use the 11,250-square-foot parcel that the city acquired through eminent domain in 2006 as well as adjacent vacant lots that Mega owns, bringing the total land coverage for the project to about 25,000 square feet. Neither proposal calls for use of the vacant lots which Mega owns west of the Sportif Importer bike shop, 5225 W. Lawrence Ave., which is the only business remaining on the block east of the CVS Pharmacy at Lawrence and Milwaukee avenues.

One of the challenges facing museum officials is that they would have to enter an agreement with Mega to purchase the developer’s lots before the city would sell its parcel to them. The site is across Lawrence from the Copernicus Center, 5216 W. Lawrence Ave.

In a 2010 request for proposals for the city parcel, the city Department of Planning and Development stipulated that any proposal be "pedestrian friendly," with construction along the sidewalk. The department also required that any project be feasible under the B3-2 zoning of the site, which allows buildings up to 50 feet tall and one dwelling unit for every 1,000 square feet of land or one smaller efficiency unit for every 700 square feet of land.

Under consideration for each proposal is the construction of parking and green space on a vacant 8,943-square-foot city-owned parcel at 4759 N. Laramie Ave. Department officials have said that underground utility and infrastructure issues on the Laramie lot may not make it suitable for a building.

The city acquired the lots on Lawrence and Laramie for $1.46 million as part of a plan to resell the lots to Mega, which 10 years ago entered into an agreement with the city to build 132 condominiums and several storefronts in the 5100 to 5300 blocks of Lawrence. However, the project was never built due to opposition by residents to the proposed seven- and 10-story height of the buildings, and the city retained ownership of the lots it had condemned.

It was reported at the meeting that a representative of the association is on an advisory board created by Alderman John Arena (45th) and that the board has reviewed Mega’s plan. The board, which includes local architects, meets on an ad hoc basis and provides input to Arena on development proposals before the public review process starts.

Arena’s chief of staff Owen Brugh said that a decision on the city lots is not imminent and that residents would have the opportunity to express their opinions on the proposal at a meeting that would be held prior to the sale.

Association member Ron Ernst expressed concern that the plan to create a pedestrian street designation for the commercial district could be an attempt to grant parking or other zoning relief for the redevelopment of Lawrence Avenue. Arena has said that he proposed the designation, which prohibits new curb cuts and drive-through facilities, to ensure that any new construction in the area meets pedestrian-friendly guidelines, including large storefront windows and parking in the rear of buildings.

The designation also would eliminate parking requirements for businesses that are up to 10,000 square feet. In addition, parking requirements would be reduced for residential uses for properties within 1,200 feet of the Jefferson Park CTA terminal, 4917 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Ernst said that the designation is not necessary because approval by the alderman is required for applications for driveway permits and that even with the designation a property owner could seek an administrative zoning adjustment that would allow a driveway. Ernst said that there also are existing restrictions on drive-through facilities, which under the zoning code require a special use from the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Brugh said that the designation is not about a specific development and that it is intended to make sure that mini-malls and other non-pedestrian type of construction do not occur in the heart of the shopping district. "It’s better to address a potential problem than fight something that could come up in the future," he said.

Association member Lotty Blumenthal said that she opposes the designation because she prefers to patronize businesses which have a parking lot in front of the store.

Arena will hold a community meeting on the pedestrian proposal at 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 4, at the Jefferson Park Library, 5363 W. Lawrence Ave.