Commission okays Lawrence Ave project after holding 2nd meeting


The redevelopment of Lawrence Avenue appears to be moving forward after the Community Development Commission at its Sept. 8 meeting approved a plan to redevelop several of the area’s vacant lots.

"We’d like to cut our losses and move on," project developer Jim Kozonis of the Mega Group told the commission. "It’s not good to keep these empty lots vacant."

Mega and the city each own about half of the 40,900-square-foot development site at Lawrence and Laramie avenues.

Last month the commission rejected the proposal, but it was revised to include four affordable housing units, and the revised plan was placed on the commission’s September agenda The four-story project calls for 39 apartments and 9,900 square feet of retail space and 62 parking spaces at 5161 and 5201 W. Lawrence Ave.

Shanna Karamaniolas, owner of Fischman Liquors, 4780 N. Milwaukee Ave., said that her business attracts visitors from outside the community and that the project would greatly improve the curb appeal of the business district. "It’s kind of embarrassing when they get off the expressway and see the empty lots," she said.

In 2004, Mega entered a redevelopment agreement with the city to build 132 condominium units in the 5100 to 5300 blocks of West Lawrence Avenue, and the city agreed to condemn any properties which Mega could not acquire on its own. In return, Mega agreed to reimburse the city for its acquisition costs, but the agreement was canceled when Mega was unable to obtain a zoning change for the project.

The failed agreement left both parties with vacant lots, whose values later dropped significantly when the bottom fell out of the real estate market. “We all have skin in the game, and we all lost,” Alderman John Arena (45th) said. “The question becomes at what point do we cut our losses.”

Commission member Shirley Newsome said that project officials had addressed one of her concerns by holding a community meeting on the proposal last week, as original plans had called for the meeting to be held after the commission voted.

Newsome said that she also was glad to see the addition of affordable units, whose rents would be at 60-percent of the market rate, and that the change would set a precedent for future housing developments in the area. Initial plans had called for Mega to pay $400,000 into the city’s affordable housing fund in exchange for not having any affordable units.

Arena said that more affordable housing in the ward is especially needed for seniors who are living on a fixed income. Under Mega’s plan, a two-bedroom affordable unit would be offered at $944 and a one-bedroom unit at $787.

Several residents testified that they support the project because the proposed density and height would be appropriate. In the past, plans to build seven- and 10-story buildings in the 5200 and 5300 blocks of West Lawrence Avenue failed to materialize due to community opposition.

Mega plans to seek a planned development ordinance for the project because Laramie separates the two parcels which the project would be built on, and neither of the two parcels by itself is large enough to allow for the proposed 39 residential units under the site’s existing B3-2 zoning. The underlying zoning of the ordinance, which would regulate the site, would be B3-2.

The commission’s approval allows the city to enter into an agreement with Mega to sell the city-owned portion of the site to Mega for $1. The city purchased the land in 2006 for $1.46 million, and it is now appraised at $530,000.

Resident Greg Sedlacek said that the city should not be selling the land to Mega for $1 given that the company created many of the business district’s problems by refusing to build on its vacant lots for the past 10 years.

Arena told the commission that when negotiations began with Mega, there was no intention to sell the city-owned lots to Mega for $1 but that the city "backed into" the proposed agreement due to the financial realities of making the project feasible.

City Department of Planning and Development deputy commissioner Mary Bonome said that the city would share in the project’s profits if they were to exceed the anticipated amount. The project is estimated to generate $175,000 in yearly property tax revenue.

Resident Steve Gulyas said that he opposes selling the land for $1 given the city’s economic problems and finds it difficult to believe that the city cannot find another developer who would be willing to pay a reasonable amount for the property. The city is required to put out a request for alternative proposals for the site before an agreement with Mega is finalized.

The Chicago Plan Commission is scheduled to hear the proposal at its meeting at 1 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 17, in the Council Chamber at City Hall, 121 N. LaSalle St.