Ald. Napolitano opposes 297-unit plan due to density, school overcrowding concerns
by BRIAN NADIG
Concerns about density and school overcrowding have led Alderman Anthony Napolitano (41st) to withhold his support for a plan to build 297 apartments near Higgins and Cumberland avenues.
Napolitano’s decision may mark the first time in 25 years that the ward’s alderman has gone against the wishes of the 41st Ward Zoning Advisory Committee, which approved the project last winter.
Former alderman Brian Doherty formed the committee in the early 1990s, which includes representatives of several community groups. The group takes votes and makes recommendations to the alderman on zoning issues. Both former alderman Mary O’Connor and Napolitano chose to continue the tradition and kept the committee. Doherty had said in the past that the credibility of the advisory committee would be damaged if he were to go against it.
"Right now we feel it’s best to defer it indefinitely," Napolitano’s chief of staff Chris Vittorio said of the proposal. The Chicago Plan Commission’s hearing on the project was delayed last week.
Committee chairman Mike Emerson said that committee members plan to meet with Napolitano to better understand his concerns.
"I am hopeful that a constructive compromise can be reached," Emerson said. "Perhaps a more proactive approach to ward wide development can be planned and enacted that will address the common goals of both the community as well as potential developers."
Vittorio said that while there was little opposition to the proposal last winter, the issue of density has become a hot-button issue on the Northwest Side in part due to a controversial zoning proposal in the neighboring 45th Ward, where Alderman John Arena supports a plan to build a seven-story development at 5150 N. Northwest Hwy.
About 5,600 people signed a petition opposing the mixed-income housing development, but Arena was required to support the site’s rezoning as part of a legal settlement in a lawsuit. The site’s owner, LSC Development, sued the city after Arena had the property downzoned to stop original plans to build only a self-storage facility there.
Napolitano was the sole alderman to vote against the Northwest Highway proposal, and his vote was unusual because aldermen almost always defer to the local alderman on zoning issues. Napolitano has said that his office was flooded with phone calls from 41st and 45th Ward residents who opposed the project.
The Higgins-Cumberland project, which would be constructed in front of the Marriott O’Hare Hotel at 8535 W. Higgins Ave., also calls for the construction of an office complex to the west of the apartments at a later time.
The development would be located within the attendance boundaries of Dirksen School and Taft High School. Dirksen was designed to accommodate a little less than 600 students but has an enrollment of about 900, and Taft is more overcrowded than Dirksen, Vittorio said.
The project’s developer, GlenStar Properties, has claimed that the apartments would be geared toward young professionals who want to live near the CTA Blue Line and that about 5 percent of the units would have school-age children. The estimate was based in part on similar projects that the company has built.
Vittorio said that it is difficult to project how many children would live there given the high quality of the area’s schools. He said that families might be willing to live in a smaller-sized apartment in order to have Dirksen or Taft as their neighborhood school.
Vittorio said that families move to the Northwest Side to escape congestion and high-density living, and that residents are looking to maintain the area’s predominantly single-family home character.
The Northwest Highway proposal generated a storm of controversy on social media. Some proponents of the plan have compared community groups that oppose the project to the Ku Klux Klan because they claim supporters of low-density are attempting to price low-income families out of the area’s housing market.
The project would include about 20 Chicago Housing Authority-subsidized apartments and 60 affordable units. Arena has pledged to bring 50 new CHA units to the ward in an effort to help end segregation in the ward’s neighborhoods.
At a public hearing, a Farnsworth School student testified that claims of segregation are false, noting that his school is about 40 percent white and 40 percent Hispanic and that at least half of the school’s families are considered low-income.
Some residents said that they do not oppose plans for affordable and CHA housing but that the project should be scaled back in part because of the overcrowded conditions of Taft and Beaubien school, which would be the neighborhood schools serving the site. About 400 new apartments are in the works for parcels located within two blocks of the Jefferson Park Transit Center, 4917 N. Milwaukee Ave.
A lawsuit filed to stop the Northwest Highway project is pending.