Plan Commission expected to approve 297-unit Higgins proposal for second time in 4 years but Council approval would be much more difficult; commission could hear the proposal this summer
by BRIAN NADIG
The Chicago Plan Commission this summer is expected to approve for the second time in four years a 297-unit apartment proposal at 8535 W. Higgins Ave. over the objections of Alderman Anthony Napolitano (41st), but winning approval from the City Council could be a much tougher task.
“We don’t need this development. We need jobs. Put a commercial building there,” Napolitano said. He added that the proposal by GlenStar Properties would likely never get out of committee despite the anticipated approval by the commission, whose votes serve as recommendations to the council.
In June the council’s Zoning Committee voted 11-2 to have the proposal deferred with the intention of having it die in committee, but the city Department of Planning wants the proposal heard in front of the plan commission, which approved a similar proposal by GlenStar in 2017. The proposal is on the commission’s July 15 agenda, but it is expected to be postponed for at least one month.
If the commission approves the seven-story project, Napolitano said, the committee would then either vote to support or reject the proposal or to have it deferred indefinitely.
Napolitano said that he suspects the committee by a wide margin would vote against the proposed zoning change as several committee members have expressed dismay at GlenStar’s attempt to get virtually the same proposal which the committee voted down in 2018 approved in 2021.
“The GlenStar project would be the first residential development built in this submarket since 1968, over 50 years ago. Property owners, developers and tenants widely agree Chicago needs more housing development to address rising demand and housing affordability,” project attorney Peter Friedman said.
In 2018, GlenStar filed a lawsuit against the city in a effort to get the project built but later dropped the lawsuit and announced plans for an office-commercial development on the parcel, which is an underutilized section of the land in front of the Marriott O’Hare.
Napolitano said that the there are 7,000 reasonably priced apartments in the O’Hare corridor, and that plenty of them are vacant. He added that the proposed residential project would not fit in with what is a predominantly commercial stretch of Higgins.
The proposal continues to be at the center of the debate on aldermanic prerogative, which is the unofficial practice of the council deferring local matters to the alderman of the affected ward. In essence this practice gives each alderman control over virtually all local legislative matters, such as zoning, permit parking and signage over the public way.
In 2018 then-alderman John Arena of the 45th Ward encouraged other aldermen go against Napolitano’s wishes and support the Higgins proposal, but the committee voted it down 7-5. At the time some aldermen praised the project because it would have included 30 affordable (reduced-rent) housing units.
However, Napolitano said, the proposal called for no more than seven affordable units until shortly before the committee vote. GlenStar agreed to increase the number of affordable units to 30 in a last-ditch effort to gain approval, he said.
The current zoning application does not specify how many affordable units would be included in the development but states that a minimum of seven would be built and that up to an additional 23 units would have to be either built or bought out.
The city requires that at least 10 percent of a development’s units be affordable but that developers can opt for a buyout of up to 75 percent of the required affordable units in which about $125,000 for each of those units is paid into a city housing fund. The minimum is changing to 20 percent later this year, with a maximum buyout of 50 percent.
“There is a need and demand for new, high-quality multi-family housing that is affordable and accessible to entry level professionals, emergency responders, teachers and O’Hare area employees,” Friedman said. “Those (affordable) units will be set at rent levels that are affordable to households earning up to 60 percent of the area median income. For example, the 2021 rent limits are set at $947 for a studio, $1,208 for a two-bedroom unit and $1,395 for a three-bedroom unit.”
Napolitano has said that the project was never about affordable housing, arguing that it would cater toward young professionals and that average rents would be on the high-end of the spectrum, with only a small number of affordable units. He said that when he first met with GlenStar several years ago, plans called for a maximum buyout of any affordable housing requirement.
The 2018 proposal was approved by the 41st Ward Zoning Advisory Committee, but Napolitano said that he decided tp go against the committee’s recommendation due to increasing concerns about high-density development proposals which his office had been receiving from residents.