Developer files lawsuit in attempt to move Higgins-Cumberland project forward in 41st Ward
by BRIAN NADIG
The developer of a stalled proposal to build a 299-unit apartment complex near Higgins and Cumberland avenues has filed a lawsuit against the city in an effort to move the project forward.
Last July the Chicago Plan Commission approved the proposal over the wishes of Alderman Anthony Napolitano (41st), who has said that the project would be too dense and would add to the severe overcrowding at Dirksen School. The project has been stuck in committee for months.
GlenStar Properties, which had the lawsuit filed on March 20 in Cook County Circuit Court, is seeking a declaratory judgment which would require the city to let GlenStar build the complex.
In January of 2017, Napolatano’s 41st Ward Zoning Advisory Committee approved the project, but the alderman has said that he reserves the right to overrule the committee’s decisions.
Napolitano has said that he decided to oppose GlenStar’s development after what he feels was widespread opposition to a controversial mixed-income housing proposal at 5150 N. Northwest Hwy. in the neighboring 45th Ward. Napolitano took the unusual step of opposing a zoning project which the other ward’s alderman, John Arena, supported.
Napolitano has said that his constituents do not want dense development projects to be built because they would further overburden the efforts of police to patrol the Northwest Side and would worsen school overcrowding.
The complex would be built on an underutilized section of land in front of the O’Hare Marriott Hotel, 8535 W. Higgins Ave. The city Department of Planning and Development endorsed the project in part due to its proximity to the Cumberland CTA Blue Line Station, 5800 N. Cumberland Ave.
At the time Napolitano declared his opposition to the project, GlenStar was planning to buy out of the city’s affordable housing requirement by paying $2.8 million to the city’s housing fund.
Normally 30 affordable units would be required for a project of this size, but the buyout reduces the number to seven, while the other units would be leased at market rate, Affordable units are offered at below-market rents to those earning about 60 percent of the area’s median income.
There have been reports that Napolitano issued a letter of support for GlenStar’s proposal to the planning department, but no such letter was written, according to Napolitano’s chief of staff Chris Vittorio.
Confusion on the matter may stem from the fact that the alderman did issue a letter of support in 2016 for a previous proposal for the site from a different developer. Vittorio said. That earlier project, which called for about 200 apartments and retail uses, never materialized, and the parcel was not rezoned to accommodate the apartments.
Napolitano was waiting to make a final decision on GlenStar’s proposal until the planning department finished its review, given that it is not unusual for the department to recommend significant changes, Vittorio said.
While the department’s review was going on, the mood of the community toward high-density development took a noticeable shift, Vittorio said.
A Dirksen administrator came to the alderman objecting to GlenStar’s plan, and many residents expressed concern about developments in the neighboring 45th Ward, including a planned 16-story building, and were worried about similar large buildings coming to the 41st Ward, Vittorio said.
At the plan commission hearing last July, GlenStar owner Larry Debb offered to build all 30 affordable units in response to inquires on the matter from commission members.
Debb also told the commission that denying the zoning change for the apartment complex could put in jeopardy plans for an office building on an adjacent parcel. Construction has since begun on the office building. He also said that his development would cater to young professionals and that a study showed that the development would house 14 school-aged children.
Neighbors for Affordable Housing in Jefferson Park, whose members have testified in favor of GlenStar’s development, maintains that Napolitano’s opposition is centered around concerns that it would include affordable housing units.
The housing organization claims that Napolitano has refused to discuss with the group the benefits which GlenStar’s project would bring to the community. “We are pleased that a court will now have a chance to see what has been obvious to observers for a long time: that Alderman Napolitano is opposed to affordable housing and wants to keep the 41st Ward closed to lower-income Chicagoans,” the group said in a statement.
Vittorio said that the alderman’s decision had nothing to do with affordable housing, as alleged in GlenStar’s lawsuit. He added that affordable housing has not been an issue because the plans have always called for the buyout, which remains in the current proposal, and that alderman’s objection is based on density.
At the plan commission hearing, planning department commissioner David Reifman said that the department did not object to the buyout.
Vittorio said that he and Napolitano met briefly with the city Department of Law to discuss the lawsuit.
The property’s zoning has remain unchanged since GlenStar acquired the parcel, and under the current zoning, GlenStar could build office or other commercial uses there, Vittorio said. A zoning change is never guaranteed, and there was not an attempt to downzone GlenStar’s property, he said.
Napolitano has said that he plans to continue fighting for his constituents despite the support which “City Hall” has expressed for the project. "It’s what residents of the community want compare to what the city wants," he said.