Council panel approves ‘pedestrian street’ plan


A City Council committee at its Oct. 28 meeting nearly deferred a vote on a "pedestrian street" zoning designation for the Jefferson Park business district due to community opposition, but the proposal was passed in accordance with a longstanding council custom.

City Council members typically follow the wishes of the alderman whose ward is affected by zoning and other local issues when they vote according to the tradition of "aldermanic prerogative."

Several members of the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association and the Jefferson Park Chamber of Commerce testified against the proposal at the meeting of the Committee on Zoning, and state Senator Iris Martinez (D-20) attended the meeting and urged the committee to defer the matter.

The proposal, which was introduced by Alderman John Arena (45th), would ban new driveways and drive-through facilities in portions of the Jefferson Park shopping district, Milwaukee and Lawrence avenues, and would require new buildings to be constructed with no setback from the sidewalk. The designation already exists at the Six Corners shopping district, Milwaukee and Cicero avenues and Irving Park Road, and at the same meeting the committee approved the designation in a commercial district in the 33rd Ward.

The association’s opposition to the designation stems from a provision in the zoning code which allows a reduction in parking requirements for properties on a street with the pedestrian designation, which is designed in part to encourage the use of public transportation.

At issue is the future of several undeveloped lots, some of which are used as gravel parking lots, near Lawrence and Laramie avenues.

Association members have expressed concern that the pedestrian designation could be used to reduce parking requirements for the development of the vacant lots, possibly allowing a denser project to be built and creating more parking congestion.

Arena has created a zoning advisory committee which has discussed a proposal by the Mega Group to build a four-story building with 39 apartments and several storefronts in the 5200 block of West Lawrence Avenue, but no formal plans have been announced. The committee meets on an ad hoc basis, and its meetings are not open to the public.

Arena’s chief of staff Owen Brugh said that the advisory committee meets privately so that its members, who include architects and an association officer, can give "candid assessments" about projects before the alderman holds a community meeting.

"The community is a little concerned about what the future plans are," Martinez told the committee. "I have had many phone calls."

Martinez said that while she does not necessarily oppose the designation, there is "uneasiness" in the community about how the designation could affect the commercial district and that it would be best to delay the vote. She said that while her legislative district does not include Jefferson Park, it does cover the southern portion of the 45th Ward and that her constituents shop in Jefferson Park.

The association has been at odds with city officials, including former alderman Patrick Levar, over the development of Lawrence since the early 2000s, and some members have expressed concern about a lack of transparency. Renderings of a proposal for Lawrence were quickly removed from a public hearing about 10 years ago after residents were seen trying to count how many floors the building would be.

At the urging of the city Department of Planning and Development, Mega was encouraged to purchase buildings on Lawrence and demolish them in preparation for a seven-story retail-condominium development that was later revised to 10 stories. Plans for project were dropped, and in 2006 the city acquired some of the lots through eminent domain.

The city reportedly is seeking to sell those lots to Mega, which owns the other vacant lots on Lawrence, for the construction of the 39-unit apartment building. The city also has received plans for a two-story photography museum on Lawrence.

Alderman Ray Suarez (31st) made a motion at the hearing to defer a vote on the pedestrian proposal, and he told Arena that he would be "a bigger winner" if he went back to the community and addressed the concerns of residents and business owners.

Committee chairman Alderman Danny Solis (25th) said that despite the concerns that were expressed, the decision on proposal rests with Arena. Suarez then withdrew his motion after Arena objected to a delay, and several aldermen said that they would honor the council’s voting tradition and would not vote against Arena on an issue in his ward.

Arena told the committee that Martinez had not previously expressed concerns to him and that residents expressed support for the proposal at a community meeting he held in September. He said that the designation would preserve the urban atmosphere of the commercial district and protect the community from unwanted development, such as the drive-through facility for the CVS Pharmacy that opened 10 years ago at Milwaukee and Lawrence avenues.

"This is about guiding development for the community," Arena said.

Brugh has said that concerns that the designation is intended to reduce parking requirements for an existing development plan for the vacant lots are unfounded. He said that any proposal being considered could be built under the existing zoning.

Residents Ron Ernst, Frank Suerth and Steve Gulyas testified against the pedestrian proposal. They were the plaintiffs in an unsuccessful lawsuit to stop the drive-through.

Ernst, whose home is in the proposed pedestrian district, said that while the association does not object to all aspects of the designation, the risks are too great given the history of the community being kept in the dark about development plans for Lawrence. He said that other measures exist which can help preserve a pedestrian-friendly environment.

Ernst said there were errors in the public notification process for the pedestrian proposal and that he plans to file a lawsuit against Arena and the city to stop the designation.

The zoning code requires signs to be posted on Lawrence and on Milwaukee notifying the public of the proposed designation, and those signs were posted several weeks late, Ernst said. The signs should have been maintained until the committee held a hearing on the matter, but none of the signs were up in recent weeks, he said.

Zoning administrator Patricia Scudiero said that the department was responsible for posting the signs but that the city lacks the personnel to replace missing signs.

The designation would cover Milwaukee between Giddings Street on the south and Higgins Avenue on the north and Lawrence between Long Avenue on the west and Laramie Avenue on the east. Under the zoning code, properties within 600 feet of a transit center are eligible for a reduction in parking requirements, but that distance is extended to 1,200 feet along a pedestrian-designated street.

On any pedestrian street, no off-street parking is required for businesses with a floor area of 10,000 square feet or less. Parking relief for residential uses is available for sites on a pedestrian street that are within 1,200 feet of a transit center.