41st Ward candidates discuss zoning as developer drops Higgins-Cumberland lawsuit
by BRIAN NADIG
A plan to build a 299-unit apartment complex near Higgins and Cumberland avenues has been scrapped because the developer reportedly wants to build offices there, but the 2-year project could remain an issue in the 41st Ward aldermanic race.
In December, GlenStar Properties agreed to drop its lawsuit seeking to build the complex, which would have been located on an underutilized section of land in front of the O’Hare Marriott Hotel, 8535 W. Higgins Ave.
Crain’s Chicago Business reported that GlenStar, which recently built an office building on an adjacent parcel, is seeking to replace the apartment plan with an office proposal in part because the lawsuit could be stuck in court for several years and hinder development.
Alderman Anthony Napolitano (41st) said that he “absolutely” welcomes the change for the site’s redevelopment.
“It’s a commercial corridor. Bring more jobs to the community,” he said.
The planned development ordinance that governs the site’s zoning allows for commercial and office uses on the property, but some revisions could be needed depending on the specifics of the plan, Napolitano said.
In June, the City Council Zoning Committee voted 7-5 against the proposal, as some committee members went against the wishes of Napolitano because they supported the project’s 30 affordable housing units.
The hearing sparked a debate on whether the council should continue the longstanding practice of aldermanic prerogative, which calls for the council to follow the wishes of the local alderman on zoning matters.
Napolitano said that the project was never about affordable housing, as the original plans called for GlenStar to buy out of the affordable housing requirement by paying $125,000 for each of the required units into the city’s housing fund. He said GlenStar later amended its proposal to include 30 on-site affordable units in an effort to get the support of housing advocates and some aldermen in the hopes of getting the project approved.
Aldermanic challenger Tim Heneghan, who is the 41st Ward Democratic committeeman, criticized Napolitano’s handling of the GlenStar proposal in an interview and said that the incumbent’s actions raised credibility concerns about his zoning review process because the 41st Ward Zoning Advisory Committee approved the apartment proposal in 2017.
Heneghan said that the lawsuit put the city at financial risk and that Napolitano was forced to oppose the proposal because of his public opposition to a seven-story, mixed-income housing proposal at 5150 N. Northwest Hwy. in the adjacent 45th Ward.
Heneghan said that Napolitano was concerned about the negative impact the Northwest Highway project would have in the 41st Ward while at the same time the denser Higgins-Cumberland project was being planned in his ward.
Only after Alderman John Arena (45th) pointed out the inconsistency were efforts taken to stop the 299-unit proposal, Heneghan said.
“That’s when Napolitano decided he had to pull the rug from out under (the Higgins-Cumberland) proposal,” Heneghan said.
Napolitano said that his decision to oppose the Higgins-Cumberland project was based on an outpouring of concerns from ward residents about school overcrowding and a police manpower shortage in the 16th (Jefferson Park) Police District.
“It had nothing to do with (Arena’s comment),” he said.
Many residents did not know about the Higgins-Cumberland plan until after news of the advisory committee’s vote hit the media, Napolitano said. Napolitano’s decision is believed to be the first time an alderman went against the wishes of the committee, which was formed in the early 1990s by then-Alderman Brian Doherty.
One advisory committee member has said that he did not have a problem with the alderman’s decision but that some members would have resigned if he had done the reverse and worked to approve a proposal that the group rejected. Napolitano said that he discussed the decision with committee members and feels that they understand why he decided to oppose the project.
Heneghan said that he plans to create smaller advisory committees for each section of the ward instead of one group that makes decisions for the entire ward. He said the “uniqueness” of each community dictates the need for several committees.
Napolitano said that it is important to keep the existing panel, which has served three different aldermen, and that he never asked any of its dozen members to resign when he became alderman so that it could continue its independence.
Napolitano acknowledged that he did make two appointments to the committee, including a spouse of one of his staff members, and that those selections were intended to make sure each community had a representative on the committee.
Napolitano said that unlike advisory committee meetings in the 45th Ward, his ward’s meetings are open to the public, and residents are encouraged to give their input to the committee.
“We run the ward like a democracy,” Napolitano said. “ You listen to your constituency to see what works best for their community.”