Committee approves 6 Corners Sears plan, but affordable housing concerns bring into question practice of aldermanic prerogative
by BRIAN NADIG
There were some signs of cracks in the longtime practice of aldermanic prerogative at the City Council Zoning Committee’s Sept. 8 meeting, but the proposed redevelopment of the former Six Corners Sears at 4712-38 W. Irving Park Road was approved despite three “no” votes.
Zoning proposals are almost always approved unanimously, but in recent years the issue of affordable housing occasionally interrupts the unofficial practice of deferring decisions to the local alderman, and that’s what happened with the Sears proposal, although in the end it was approved.
The $90 million project calls for six of the 207 propsoed apartments to meet the city’s affordable housing criteria, which requires below-market rate rents that would be affordable to households making no more than 60 percent of the area median income.
The developer, Novak Construction, plans to conduct a buyout of the other required 15 affordable units by paying about $2 million into the city’s housing fund. Any delay in the project’s approval would force Novak to adhere to the new affordable requirements, which take effect Oct. 1, and which would require the development to include at least 20 on-site affordable units.
Those voting against the six-story development were Alderwoman Maria Hadden (49th), Alderman Byron Sigcho Lopez (25th) and Alderman Michael Rodriguez (22nd).
The discussion on the Sears project appeared to briefly carry over to another agenda item when Alderman Carrie Austin (34th) asked Lopez if he “pushed for more” affordable units in a proposal in his ward given that “he wanted (Gardiner) to push harder” on the Sears proposal.
The philosophy behind aldermanic prerogative is that “if you don’t mess with my ward, I won’t mess with your ward.”
Opponents of aldermanic prerogative argue that it has contributed to the city’s segregation, with some neighborhoods lacking the proper amount of affordable housing.
“Our racial segregation is deeply tied to (zoning decisions),” Hadden said.
Hadden asked Gardiner if he would consider delaying the proposal so that it would be subject to the newer affordable requirements.
Gardiner said that the project has the overwhelming support of the community, including numerous community and business groups, and that he does it want to play “a high stakes poker game” of wondering what would happen to the development site if approval were delayed given that the building has been vacant for three years and the site’s first developer dropped out.
Project officials have said that preserving portions of the Sears building, which was constructed in 1938, would not be economically feasible if more on-site affordable units were required. Developers often opt to pay into the housing fund because it is less expensive than offering the reduced rents, which stay in effect for 30 years.
“I understand your concerns (but) those concerns have been weighed,” Gardiner said in response to Hadden’s question. He added that while he supports the new affordable housing ordinance, the project is “absolutely vital” to the area’s revitalization.
In 2019, Gardiner delayed approval of a 10-story senior living proposal for Six Corners in order to get the developer to include 10 on-site affordable units. Previous plans had called for 10 off-site units for the project, which is under under construction.
Alderman Raymond Lopez (15th) said that it would not be fair to force the new affordable housing conditions on the developer given that the project was in the works prior to the council’s approval of the tougher requirements.
Hadden noted the planned rooftop pool for the project and said that it seems like more resources could have been allocated toward on-site affordable units. “It’s very disappointing,” she said.
Alderman James Cappleman (46th) said that while on-site affordable units is an important aspect for all projects, he supports the Sears proposal in part because the $2 million being paid by Novak can help other neighborhoods, including low-income families who would not qualify for the 60 percent area median income being targeted for the six on-site affordable apartments in Novak’s project.
The committee received dozens of letters of in opposition (reportedly due to the affordable concerns) to the project, and one resident testified at the hearing that the proposal should be put on hold due to its low number of affordable units.
Two representative of the Six Corners Chamber of Commerce testified in support of the proposal. In an online chamber survey, about 88 percent of the 466 respondents said that they “strongly support” or “support” the project, and about 24 percent called for a delay so that the new affordable ordinance would be in effect, according to the chamber.
The planned market-rate rents for the Sears project have been previously described at about $2,750 for a 1,000-square-foot apartment. A Target department store also reportedly is under consideration for the ground floor, and 275 parking spaces, including some spaces in an underground parking garage, are planned.
The Sears project is excepted to generate 32 full-time jobs after it is completed and $600,000 in additional property tax revenue.