“The really important part of the process for any planned development is the alderman,” said Adam Kinsley, a former attorney for the city on zoning issues.
Mesa Development and the University of Chicago are seeking a planned development designation to build a 130-foot-tall apartment building at 1330 E. 53rd St., a designation under consideration by Ald. Will Burns (4th).
“It’s not to say that agencies don’t weigh in, but I don’t think it’s a secret to say what an alderman wants to see happen is often what happens,” Kingsley said.
The project will go through several community committees over the next week before an expected review by the city’s Chicago Plan Commission on May 16.
The 53rd Street TIF advisory council’s committee on planning and development will hold a meeting on the residential and retail proposal at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Kenwood Academy, 5015 S. Blackstone Ave. The full advisory council is expected to vote May 16 on whether to advise Burns to support the project.
Tim Barton, a former staffer in the city’s zoning department, said the tower would likely quickly go through two steps after the plan commission reviews the project.
He said the property that is currently a Mobil gas station would be rezoned to allow for maximum height and density. The new zoning designation would then be used as the basis to write the planned development zoning, he said.
“Planned developments are a zoning unto themselves — they are basically their own zoning,” Barton said.
He said the planned development designation frees the developers from the 80-foot height restrictions otherwise imposed by the zoning code.
Kingsley, the only one of the speakers to hint at opposition to the development, advised the audience of about 100 at United Church of Hyde Park that challenging the zoning change in court would be difficult, but could be successful.
He said a challenger would need to argue that the 13-story building was out of character with the surrounding three- and four-story buildings.
“I think it’s a good argument that it’s out of character with the surrounding buildings,” Kingsley said. “I think if you took that to a court, you would have a strong argument that this is out of character.”
He warned that if the project were successfully completed, challenging similar projects in the future would be harder.
“If this does get built, it becomes part of the neighborhood,” Kingsley said. “Essentially, you’ve let the Trojan horse in and you’ve changed the character of the neighborhood.”
John Norquist, the president of the Congress for New Urbanism and the mayor of Milwaukee from 1988 to 2004, said residents should not vilify the developers.
“On average, they’re not any more immoral than anyone else,” he said.
Norquist said developers are responding to market pressure, which often does not encourage small-scale development.
“That’s why [the developer] wants  stories, he can’t finance four stories,” Norquist said. “That’s what’s in his mind and he’s right, he can’t.”
Norquist said the project did seem out of scale with the surrounding buildings, but was close to public transportation, which would ease congestion around the building.
Barton said he did not have an opinion on the project, but from his experience with zoning code at the city, big projects were most successful when close to public amenities.
“There has always been the notion that density, tall buildings, near open space is a good thing,” he said.
The proposed building would face Nichols Park.
The audience seemed divided on the project, though many donned buttons that said “Sky Not Skyscraper.”