Commission goes against wishes of Ald. Napolitano and approves 297-unit plan
by BRIAN NADIG
The Chicago Plan Commission at its July 20 meeting went against the wishes of Alderman Anthony Napolitano (41st) and approved a proposed 297-unit apartment complex near Higgins and Cumberland avenues, with one member calling for more affordable housing units in the development.
Napolitano said after the meeting that he will seek to hold the proposal up in the Zoning Committee. The complex would be built on an underutilized section of land in front of the O’Hare Marriott Hotel, 8535 W. Higgins Ave.
Napolitano’s zoning advisory panel approved the project months ago, but since that time, density on the Northwest Side has become a hot-button issue due in large part to a controversial plan to build a100-unit, mixed-income housing complex at 5150 N. Northwest Hwy. in the neighboring 45th Ward, according to Napolitano.
The commission approved the Northwest Highway project several months ago at the recommendation of Alderman John Arena, and Napolitano was the only alderman to later oppose the proposal in City Council. Arena has said that density is needed to revitalize the business districts in his ward.
“The Northwest Side just doesn’t want big density development,” Napolitano’s chief of staff Chris Vittorio said before the meeting. Vittorio said that the ward office has been flooded with phone calls against the Northwest Highway and Higgins proposals.
Napolitano testified that the “tremendous amount of controversy” surrounding the 45th Ward project led to increased scrutiny by his constituents of the Higgins proposal and that opposition has been “not by the hundreds, but by the thousands.” He said that residents are worried that increased density would further overburden the efforts of police to patrol the area and would worsen the overcrowded conditions at schools.
“Dirksen is built to accommodate approximately 565 students. In 2017-18, enrollment is set to be 903, with no hope, in what we’ve heard, of an annex or addition ” Napolitano said. “I will stand up for my residents everyday of the week and twice on Sundays.”
Commissioner Laura Flores, who voted for the Higgins project, expressed concern that there were no residents at the meeting opposing the proposal. “We don’t even have one person signed up to speak against,” she said.
Napolitano said that he was hopeful the commission would respect his wishes but that next time he “can easily have hundreds down here.” He added that after he saw the commission ignore the testimony of residents on the Northwest Highway proposal, he did not know if it would be worthwhile to encourage residents to attend. About 5,600 people have signed a petition against the Northwest Highway plan, but Arena has contended that the opposition was fueled more by fears of the planned affordable and low-income housing units in the building than by the planned height and density of the project.
Another commission member, Linda Searl, who voted for the project, asked the developer, Larry Debb of GlenStar Properties, if he would be willing to increase the number of affordable housing units in the development from seven to 30, and Debb agreed. Normally 30 affordable units would be required for a project of this size under city law, but Debb has offered to buy out 23 of the units by paying $2.8 million into the city’s housing fund.
Affordable units are offered at below-market rents to those earning about 60 percent of the area’s median income.
Debb testified that the apartments would be intended primarily for professionals with no school-age children who are looking to take advantage of the area’s public transportation. The development would be located next to the Cumberland CTA Blue Line Station. The city Department of Planning and Development endorsed the project in part due to its proximity to the Blue Line station.
Debb also said that a company looking to have an office building constructed on an adjacent parcel would bring about 600 jobs to the area but that the deal would be in jeopardy if the apartment plan falls through. He said that apartments generate less traffic than office uses and would be a good fit for the site.
Debb said that his company manages other office buildings in the area and that tenants have said that “good housing” is needed in the area for their employees. He added that the apartment complex would generate about $500,000 a year in property tax revenue for the Chicago Public Schools.
Alderman Tom Tunney (44th) was the only commission member to vote against the project, expressing concern about the building’s design. “It looks like a lot of apartment buildings near O’Hare,” Tunney said. “The project could have used a bit more creativity.”
Napolitano said that he plans to continue fighting for his constituents despite what City Hall wants. “It’s what residents of the community want compare to what the city wants,” he said.