Commission okays zoning for Northwest Hwy-Milwaukee self-storage site
by BRIAN NADIG
The Chicago Plan Commission at its March 16 meeting unanimously approved rezoning a 1.54 parcel at 5150 N. Northwest Highway to accommodate a five-story, self-storage warehouse and an unspecified residential development.
The hearing lasted 2 ½ hours, and many of those who signed up to speak had to leave before their name was called to testify. About 100 people at the meeting registered as an opponent to the project, while about 25 people signed up as a supporter.
Opponents charged that Alderman John Arena (45th) was ignoring the wishes of the community and said that the commission should delay a decision so that more time could be spent studying the project’s impact. Concerns also were raised that the 70-foot-tall warehouse would be too tall and that there are too many storage units already in the area.
Resident Julie O’Brien said that residents have found it difficult to discuss their concerns about the project with Arena. She said that on a recent ward night Arena told a group of residents that “he did not work for us” and that he instead “worked for the City of Chicago.”
Supporters testified that the project would spruce up the gateway to the Jefferson Park business district and that the original plan to have only a storage warehouse on the site did not represent the “best and highest use” of the property.
Resident Sara Gronkiewicz-Doran said that Arena’s support for the project is in line with his campaign pledge to bring in new development to revitalize the business area. “He’s doing what exactly he said he would do,” she said.
Arena told the commission that the project makes sense given its proximity to the Jefferson Park Transit Center, which will be undergoing a $25 million renovation in the next few years. The city’s zoning code was recently re-written to encourage dense development near transit centers.
Current plans call for a seven-story, mixed-income housing project with 100 units to be built next to the storage facility, but the commission only considered the warehouse component of the project. Construction on the warehouse is expected to start this spring.
A second hearing will be held on a residential development for the site at a later date. A planned development ordinance for the site would be amended at that time.
The proposal resulted from a settlement agreement between the city and the site’s owner, LSC Development, after the company sued the city. The lawsuit was filed after the city revoked LSC’s construction permit to retrofit the existing three-story structure into a storage facility.
At the time there were no plans for apartments, but Arena had the property downzoned because he felt that a warehouse by itself on the site would do little for the area’s economic vitality.
At the hearing Arena testified that regarding the downzoning, he “consulted with the planning department, with the community,” but several residents said after the hearing that were unaware of any community meeting on the downzoning.
Last year the plan commission unanimously approved the downzoning of the site. Additional industrial properties on the block also were downzoned, and those sites are being marketed as potential redevelopment opportunities.
In the settlement agreement, Arena and zoning administrator Patricia Scuderio agreed to support rezoning the property to B3-5 to accommodate a warehouse on the north end of the site and a residential complex on the south end. LSC plans to eventually sell half of the property to a residential developer.
Commissioner Michael Kelly, who also is the Chicago Park District superintendent, said that he felt obligated to vote in favor of the zoning proposal because of the settlement agreement.
Several residents testified that the revoking LSC’s original permit was unfair and that it was wrong for Arena and other city officials to sign the settlement agreement in January before obtaining community input on plans for the project.
There was no mention of the agreement at a Feb. 9 community meeting which Arena hosted on the project. News of the agreement came out about a week later.
“The community has not been given a seat at the table,” resident Kerri Urbanski said. She added that the lack of transparency in the decision-making process resembled a dictatorship.
“It cuts us out of the process,” resident Richard Gengler said of the agreement.
Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association president Robert Bank said that LSC had “the rug pulled out under its feet” and that the city should restore the site’s original M1-1 zoning so that LSC could proceed with its initial plans to retrofit the existing structure. He said that the city also should compensate LSC for lost revenue due to delays.
A petition with more than 3,000 signatures against the project was presented to the commission.
Resident Victoria Aviles said that the signatures were collected “in only 10 days” and that at three-flats, residents from all three floors were coming to the front door to sign. She also presented to the commission affidavits against the project from the owners of 13 of the 15 homes located with 250 feet of the site.
Gladstone Park Chamber of Commerce board member John Garrido said that the up-zoning violates Arena’s own development guidelines which are posted on the ward’s Web site. Those guidelines encourage development to conform to the existing zoning map and state that zoning changes would be granted “under extreme circumstances.”
Several residents also expressed concern that the proposed B3-5 zoning, which is the densest classification for community shopping districts, would set a precedent for the area. “This is complete zoning exploitation,” neighborhood association board member Ron Ernst said.
Two commission board members said that they wished there could have been a compromise on the height of the warehouse, but the project’s architect rejected the idea of a shorter building. Several residents cited a recommendation in the Gladstone Park master plan which calls for the height of new buildings to be limited to four stories.
Representatives of the Service Employees International Union, Access Living, Metropolitan Planning Council and Center for Neighborhood Technology testified in favor of the project.
Several proponents said that fear of plans to include about 20 Chicago Housing Authority-subsidized units in the proposed residential building was fueling much of the opposition. Those tenants would be chosen by the CHA, but the developer, Full Circle Communities, would be allowed to conduct background checks, and under some circumstances they could reject a CHA-recommended applicant.
Resident Ben Goldsmith said that the site’s existing building, which was once home to a food processing plant, is “hideous” and that he is glad that the new plans call for it to be demolished instead of retrofitted.
A resident reported at the hearing about more than 900 people had signed a petition in favor of the proposal.
City officials said that the while plans are moving forward for the warehouse on the north end of the site, the development ordinance would be worded so that nothing could be built in the immediate future on the south end. The ordinance would have to be amended to allow a residential project, sparking another round of public hearings.