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Developer Says Uptown Has 'Too Much' Affordable Housing, Aims For Luxury

By Adeshina Emmanuel | December 27, 2012 9:21am | Updated on December 27, 2012 2:05pm

UPTOWN — A proposal to construct luxury glass towers in a tax increment financing district near the lakefront faces mounting opposition from affordable housing advocates.

Advocates argue that the $220 million plan to build nearly 800 units at Clarendon and Montrose avenues needs more affordable options. They also said the proposed $1,200 rent on those units is too much.

"Calling $1,200 affordable is definitely pushing it," said Mini Reddy, a site coordinator for LIFT, an Uptown-based housing and employment assistance organization.

"I don't think most Uptown residents that I work with at LIFT would find this affordable,” Reddy said.

JDL, the leading player on the development team, seeks an undisclosed amount of TIF money from Chicago to build a 31-story glass building, a 10-story glass building with townhomes lining its base, and 85,000 square feet of commercial space in the Clarendon/Montrose TIF District.

The former site of Maryville Academy sits there now — idle and boarded-up since 2009. It includes two buildings on the northwest and northeast corners connected by an elevated walkway.

JDL President James Letchinger said that 40 to 60 units — or 5 percent to 7.5 percent of the total — would be devoted to affordable housing, renting for an average price of about $1,200 a month. Average rent on regular units would be $1,700 to $1,800, he said.

But Chicago law requires that 20 percent of the units in a residential TIF development be dedicated to affordable housing, which would mean nearly 160 units under the current plan.

Letchinger said that public opinion about the project was "generally positive" at meetings on Nov. 14 and Dec. 13, and that many agree that there isn't a need for too many affordable units.

“There is too much low-income housing in the neighborhood already,” Letchinger said. “Neighbors have been overwhelmingly opposed to affordable housing.”

The city defines rent as affordable when a household earning 60 percent of the Chicago area median income can reasonably pay it. Sixty percent of Chicago's median income is $44,160 annually for a household of four and $30,960 a year for a one-person household, according to the city.

But the ordinance's affordable requirement comes with a little wiggle room — if developers are willing to pay into a city fund that finances affordable housing elsewhere. That payment is $100,000 for each affordable unit that's required by law but not built. That would cost JDL and its partners $12 million if they build 120 fewer affordable units than required by law.

The possibility that the units won't be built at the site has the social justice group Organization of the Northeast seeking a meeting with the developer,  organizer Mary Lynch-Dungy said this week.

“We want the affordable units rather than money given out" to the fund, Lynch-Dungy said.

Another critic is Uptown artist Jeffrey Littleton, a 46-year-old tenant of low-income housing provider Mercy Housing.

Littleton, a member of Mercy’s Tenant Leadership Program, said the proposed rent not only excludes low-income people, but "the middle- and lower middle-class, the working class.” And he said he was uneasy about the use of public dollars toward what he considers “luxury housing on the lakefront.”

Still, many of the property owners who live closest to the proposed site like the plan. Marsha Dempster, a 30-year-old Uptown condominium owner, is intrigued by developers’ promise of bringing Uptown its “first Grade A building in decades.”

The plan for the 31-story tower includes an indoor private park and garden space, a roof terrace, two pools, fire pits and areas to grill, dine, lounge and exercise. A ribbon of etched glass bearing images of tree branches would be wrapped around the exterior of the fourth floor and would light up at night.

"We have this company that wants to come in and put this amazing building that adds to our skyline in Chicago, that has retail and jobs and great units and some affordable housing — but not enough for some people,” Dempster said. "But I'm not sure if they realize there is affordable housing within blocks of here."

Abby Sullivan, an aide to Ald. James Cappleman (46th) — who has yet to take a stance on the project — said she expected that there might be criticism from all sides of the affordable housing debate, which continues to be a contentious issue in Uptown.

"We would get criticism at 20 percent, we would get criticism at five. We're not going to make everybody happy,” she said.

The project still has to clear hurdles involving zoning, other city permits and community support to break ground in "less than a year," by Letchinger's timetable.

But Letchinger emphasized the project details are not set in stone.