Committee approves Northwest Hwy proposal; one member rips project opponents for “racist tendencies”


The City Council Zoning Committee at its May 22 meeting approved a controversial plan to build a five-story storage warehouse and a housing development at 5150 N. Northwest Highway.

The 3-hour hearing became contentious at times.

Committee member Alderman Ray Lopez (15th) said that the project opponents “should all be ashamed of yourselves” due to “your racist tendencies.” Lopez expressed concern about comparisons of the project on social media to Cabrini Green and another statement suggesting that Alderman John Arena (45th) should become the alderman of Englewood.

Committee chairman Alderman Danny Solis (25th) responded that “blanket” statements about groups of people should not be made.

A resident later testified that he was “very offended” by Lopez’ remarks. “I’d pay any of these people to be my neighbor,” the man said.

Earlier in the hearing a Farnsworth student testified that the neighborhood is diverse, noting that about 40 percent of Farnsworth students are white and 40 percent are Hispanic and that most students come from low-income families.

Some of the project’s supporters have charged that opponents are hiding behind the issues of height and density in order to maintain what they say is a segregated community. A supporter testified that the proposal is about “expanding affordable housing to neighborhoods with more opportunity.”

Another supporter testified that the site’s proximity to the Jefferson Park Transit Center would help provide access to job opportunities in Downtown Chicago and at O’Hare Airport. Full Circle Communities, which would develop the housing portion of the project, plans to market the units to veterans.

The committee only approved the warehouse portion of the project, as a second hearing on the planned housing development is months away. At this time the proposed ordinance calls for a housing project but does not specify details of that portion of the development.

However, nearly  all of the testimony focused on a plan supported by Arena to build next to the warehouse a seven-story, mixed-income housing project with 60 affordable and 20 low-income units. There also would be 20 market-rate units.

Arena has pledged to bring 50 Chicago Housing Authority-subsidized apartments to the ward as part of an effort to end segregation on the North and Northwest sides.

The proposal must overcome a lawsuit which residents filed in objection to a settlement agreement that resulted in the project. Once the full council approves the zoning change, opponents are expected to seek a temporary injunction to stop the issuance of building permits.

Original plans called for the existing building on the 1.5-acre parcel to be retrofitted into a self-storage facility. However, Arena stopped the project by having the property downzoned, and the city revoked the permit to build the facility.

Arena has said that a warehouse by itself on the parcel would do little for the area’s economic vitality. Plans now call for the existing structure to be demolished.

Arena later signed a settlement agreement which requires him to support rezoning the parcel to B3-5, the densest designation for community shopping districts. The warehouse development team, which had sued the city over the downzoning, then agreed to drop its lawsuit.

Several residents testified at the hearing that Arena had bargained away the community’s rights by signing the agreement prior to gathering community feedback on the plan. One resident said that the settlement agreement was designed to increase the value of the land for the developer without community input.

Another resident said that allegations of racism are being made in attempt to draw attention away from Arena’s lack of transparency and backroom dealing.

A resident asked the committee to delay a vote because a meeting with Arena to discuss a compromise resulted in no changes to the plan. “Why can’t it be four stories? Why can’t it stick within the architecture of the community?” another resident testified.

About 5,600 people have signed a petition against the project. About 80 percent of those residents living within 1,000 feet of the development site have signed documents opposing the project, according to petition organizers.

A man said that zoning laws are intended to protect the owners of properties near a development site. “Zoning exists to protect their interests. It’s very simple,” he said, urging for a “no” vote.

Another resident urged committee members to support the project because the development would have a positive effect on more than just Jefferson Park. “You have to vote for all of Chicago,” she said.