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Bishop Street 'McMansion' Plan Has Neighbors Up in Arms on Historic Street

By Chloe Riley | August 29, 2013 8:04am
 Property owner Kevin Skarbek wants to expand his house to the middle of his yard, but neighbors worry he's destroying the small street's historic character.
New Bishop Street Property
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LITTLE ITALY — For decades, Bishop Street has offered a slice of European charm in the historic Little Italy neighborhood. The street is lined with row houses set back from the road, with connected front yards uninterrupted by fences.

But some residents on Bishop say a new homeowner's plans to build what they call a "McMansion"-style home along the cul-de-sac street will disrupt that charm and a feeling of community built up over decades.

The plans call for an expansion of the current home out into the middle of the front yard, interrupting the shared setback of the homes on the street. Neighbors fear it could harm property values on the street, where homes date to the 1800s.

"It’s just a terrible thing he’s doing," said homeowner Katie Kinnerk, who lives at 807 S. Bishop St. "It’s not like we're saying you can’t have a big house, we’re saying do it with the consideration of everyone on Bishop Street."

But the new homeowner, Kevin Skarbek, points out that his plans are allowed by the zoning on the street.

"The last thing I want to do is get people angry at me," Skarbek said. "I don’t think I'm ruining anyone's lives. It’s just change on the block."

The 800 and 900 blocks of South Bishop, which run between Polk and Taylor streets, are well-known in the neighborhood, marked by four stone sculptures of bishop chess pieces on the north entrance to the street.

The stretch was given a cul-de-sac in the late 1960s with the help of $18 million in federal dollars set aside for revitalization on the Near West Side.

About 15 years ago, the city added a tree-lined median and moved the cul-de-sac to the south end. A fountain and statue of New York Yankees slugger Joe DiMaggio now sits on a plaza just south of the cul-de-sac, across the street from the Italian American Sports Hall of Fame and near countless restaurants.

The street’s history and uniformity are what contribute to its appeal and sense of community, said block resident Paul Fitzpatrick, who works in construction. The large open yards are all connected, with no fences between them, and residents frequently socialize on patios out front — rather than in backyards.

In December, Skarbek, who works in the financial services industry and whose sister also lives on Bishop, paid $307,500 for the home at 829 S. Bishop St., the rowhouse attached to Fitzpatrick's. He submitted renovation plans to the city that called for a two-story addition as well as a new third floor and rooftop deck. The plan called for the new home to jut out into the front yard.

Residents pleaded with city officials to deny the permit.

"These two blocks of Bishop Street are a unique, tree lined, huge front yard setting next to downtown," Kinnerk wrote in an email to the zoning department. "The reason people buy homes on this block is because of the large set back and the greenery for our children.

"These new buyers bought a small row house knowing the confines of the building and yet have chosen to set a precedent which could devastate our street. While this new family is a great asset to our neighborhood, their plans to permanently change our street for the worse is not welcome."

The city rejected Skarbek's original plans but eventually approved them Aug. 7. The new plan would still extend the home 12 feet out from the common setback of homes on the street, city officials said.

Crews erected a green fence around Skarbek's entire property, giving neighbors a taste of how their continuous string of yards could soon be disrupted.

But Skarbek claims his plans won't be that bad. Although he declined to release them, he said he only plans to build out seven feet from the other homes.

On Aug. 14, block residents and members of the University Village Association, including longtime neighborhood activist Oscar D’Angelo, sent a letter to Zoning Committee Chairman Ald. Danny Solis (25th) and local Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), asking the city to halt Skarbek’s project.

"Our Bishop Street is one of the most important residential streets in our community because of its history and unique architectural integrity,” the letter said. "Historically, the city and related agencies have wanted to declare landmark status for our Bishop Street. It is a classic example of working class housing initially built in England."

The letter said the group would support Skarbek expanding toward the rear of the property instead.

Ervin spokesman Ty Cratic said the alderman hopes to have a meeting next week between Skarbek and his neighbors to see if some kind of compromise can still be reached, although at this point there is no way to stop the project. 

“Going after the gentleman for legally obtaining a permit isn’t something we can do,” Cratic said. “We can look at afterward to see if there’s a way for everyone to live in harmony over there.”

Skarbek said he can't wait for any revised plans to be approved by the city because his lease at his home in the West Loop is up in February and he needs the construction finished so he can move in with his wife and two young children.

"One of the big reasons we moved here is because we would have known our neighbors and they are very nice people," Skarbek said. "I never bought this property with any intention of moving forward, but when it comes down to it, it’s my property."

But for homeowners like Donna Buczko, who's lived on the block for four decades, the legal technicalities shouldn't matter.

"It's an unspoken thing. People, they want to live on this block because of the way it looks. Why take away from the neighborhood the way it's been?" she said.