Alderman reviews area development potential


A “pedestrian street” designation for the Lawrence-Milwaukee intersection would ensure that redevelopment of vacant parcels in the area that are being used as gravel parking lots would have an urban feel, with storefronts along the sidewalk, according to Alderman John Arena (45th).

The status of the lots, which are often filled with vehicles, was discussed at a Sept. 4 community meeting held by Arena. The meeting was called to discuss the pedestrian zoning designation, but several questions by residents centered on plans to redevelop the lots and the challenges facing the Jefferson Park shopping district.

The gravel lots were created about 10 years ago when their owner, the Mega Group, demolished several buildings in the 5200 and 5300 blocks of West Lawrence Avenue. A 132-unit condominium complex with storefronts was planned for the south side of the street, but the plan was dropped in the face of opposition to the proposed height of the building.

“It was a poorly conceived idea, a 10-story tower behind single-family homes,” Arena said.

For several years the parcels have been used as parking lots that Arena described as “quasi” legal in response to a question asked at the meeting. The lots are being used to park commercial vehicles for a limousine company and for the vehicles of people attending events at the Copernicus Cultural and Civic Center, 5216 W. Lawrence Ave.

Arena has said that he would not object to the temporary use of the properties for parking as long as efforts are being made to redevelop them.

Earlier in the year Mega reportedly proposed a four-story building with 10,600 square feet of storefronts and 39 apartments for some of the vacant lots, but Arena told residents at the meeting that he was not ready to release details of the plan. He said that an advisory board which he created and which includes architects and a representative of the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association has been reviewing the plans.

Resident Ron Ernst said that residents should not be kept in the dark about the project, which would include the sale of a city-owned parcel at 5201-09 W. Lawrence Ave., and that discussion of the project should expand beyond an advisory board that meets in private. An aide to Arena said that a public meeting on the project would be held before a potential sale.

A woman asked at the meeting whether a proposed two-story photography museum was being considered for the city-owned parcel and adjoining lots which Mega owns. Arena said that the museum’s developer would have to enter into an agreement with Mega to buy the lots the developer owns before the city would consider selling its parcel to him.

The redevelopment of the lots would result in the loss of dozens of parking spaces, but Arena said that the need for parking is often overvalued when it comes to revitalizing a commercial district. He said that the Belmont-Central shopping district has had problems despite having a public parking garage less than a block from the intersection.

Construction of a 299-space parking garage at northeast corner of Lipps Avenue and Ainslie Street was proposed in 2010, but Arena told residents that he continues to oppose that plan.

Arena said that redevelopment of the area may require a “strategic” plan for the parking needs of the Copernicus Center, which has an auditorium that holds 1,900 people. He said that the center brings visitors who patronize area restaurants and that up to 400 parking spaces are needed for some of the center’s popular shows.

The shopping district also has several buildings with storefronts that have been vacant for 10 years to as long as 25 years. Arena said that the owners of the buildings would have more incentive to lease or sell their property if the county would limit the number of years that owners of vacant buildings and land can a receive a reduction on their property assessment.

Also at the meeting, Arena said that the proposed pedestrian zoning designation for the Lawrence-Milwaukee commercial district is intended to give developers parameters. “It is a protective measure,” he said. “This is about saying, ‘How do we look to our future?'”

The designation, which would not affect existing buildings, would require that new buildings have large storefront windows and that parking be limited to the rear of buildings. It also would prohibit new driveways and new drive-through facilities.