9/2 community meeting set on Lawrence/Laramie plan, which now includes 4 affordable housing units
UPDATE: Alderman John Arena (45th) has announced that a community meeting will be held on the proposal for the vacant lots at Lawrence and Laramie avenues at 6:30 pm Wed., Sept. 2, at the 16th District Police Station, 5151 N. Milwaukee Ave. The project also will be on the Sept. 8 agenda for the Community Development Commission, which at its August meeting refused to endorse the plan to sell the city-owned portion of the property to the developer for $1. The city still plans to sell its lots for $1, but the 39-unit apartment building would now include four affordable housing units. Previously the developer, the Mega Group, planned to give $400,000 to the city’s affordable housing fund instead of including affordable units in the building. The attached story was written on Aug. 11. Nadig Newspapers will be publishing updates during the next two weeks.
by BRIAN NADIG
The Community Development Commission at its Aug. 11 meeting refused to endorse a four-story redevelopment project for the vacant lots at Lawrence and Laramie avenues, but the commission could take a second look at the proposal next month.
Alderman John Arena (45th) said that any delays could jeopardize the project because it must be approved by the City Council before new rules on affordable housing taking place on Oct. 13 in order for it to be economically feasible. Project developer the Mega Group would have to contribute $400,000 to the city’s affordable housing fund under the city’s current program, but after Oct. 13 the amount would be $500,000.
Arena said that the lots could remain vacant for several years if the project is delayed. He said that the development proposal is expected to be back on the agenda for the commission’s meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 8.
The commission voted 3-2, with three abstentions, in favor of the proposal, but at least five affirmative votes are required for approval. The commission routinely approves projects which have been endorsed by the city Department of Planning and Development and the local alderman. The department was seeking the approval of the commission for a negotiated sale of the property to Mega and to advertise for alternate proposals.
At issue is the city’s plan to sell the lots that the city purchased through eminent domain for $1.46 million in 2006 to Mega for $1. At one time Mega had agreed to reimburse the city for all of its acquisition costs, but the deal fell through after Mega could not obtain a zoning change that would have allowed construction of a 132-condominium complex in the 5100 to the 5300 blocks of West Lawrence Avenue.
A Mega official told the commission that the company would be unable to obtain financing for the $16.3 million project if the city does not give it the property.
Department project manager Michelle Nolan said that selling the parcels for $1 is appropriate because Mega held up its end of the agreement 10 years ago, when at the city’s urging Mega purchased several buildings for the 132-unit project and demolished the buildings. Several of the properties purchased by Mega are now used as gravel parking lots.
The city-owned portion of the site has been appraised at $530,000, and it makes up about half of the land which would be developed for the current project. Plans call for 39 apartments and several storefronts for the vacant lots east of the Sportif Importer bike shop, 5225 W. Lawrence Ave.
At the hearing resident Greg Sedlacek questioned the need to sell the city-owned lots to Mega because the company could build similar projects on its gravel parking lots. "Effectively this community is being held hostage," Sedlacek said of Mega’s undeveloped properties. "They could have done it 15 years ago and they didn’t. Now we’re expected to pay for it."
At the Aug. 13 meeting of the Jefferson Park Chamber of Commerce, some residents recommended that the city consider condemning the gravel parking lots in an attempt to bring new development to the sites. Arena said that a court ruling that restricts eminent domain powers would prevent the city from doing so, but some chamber members said that at the commission’s hearing the city presented a plan to place private properties in another part of the city on an acquisition map to encourage development.
"They could definitely do this without taking the public land," resident Ron Ernst said of Mega’s proposal. "They refuse to build."
Ernst told the commission that there has been insufficient time for the public to review the proposal because Arena had not held a community meeting on the project and that meetings at which the ward’s zoning advisory committee reviewed the project are not open to the public. Most wards do not have zoning review boards, but in the 41st Ward three aldermen in the past 20 years have kept the advisory meetings open to the public.
Ernst said that the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association has not been presented the proposal, but Arena told the commission that association president Judy Skotzko is a member of his advisory committee. However, Skotzko later said that she was last invited to an advisory meeting in March of 2014.
The project has been in the works for more than a year, but project details were not released until the day before the commission’s hearing. Arena has said that the community meeting, which will be held on Wednesday, Sept. 16, could not be scheduled before to the commission’s hearing because of the rush to get the project approved before the affordable housing rule changes and that there will time to alter or drop the project before the City Council votes on the project.
Arena has said that the project is appropriate because it can be built under the existing B3-2 zoning of the site and the four-story height is reasonable compared to the planned 10-story height in 2006. He said that the project would put the city lots back on the tax roll and that it would serve as a gateway to the Jefferson Park commercial district, attracting additional development to the area.
A planned development ordinance, which would create customized zoning for the site, may be necessary for the project because the lots are separated by Laramie Avenue, but the underlying zoning for the site would be B3-2, according to a city planning official. Arena aides have said that the department conducted a zoning review of the project and that it has given no indication that a zoning change, including a planned development, would be required.
Arena said that it is in the best interest of the city to take advantage of Mega’s proposal and get the city-owned lots on the tax roll. Project officials estimate that the development would generate $175,000 annually in property and sales tax revenue. A photography museum has expressed interest in the site.