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East Village Development Boom Threatens Soul of Neighborhood, Critics Say

By Alisa Hauser | November 6, 2013 11:47am
 "It's not hard to get a demolition permit," East Village community leader Neal McKnight said.
"It's not hard to get a demolition permit," East Village community leader Neal McKnight said.
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DNAinfo/Alisa Hauser

EAST VILLAGE —  With the real estate market on the upswing, so are the wrecking balls.

In recent months, East Village residents say they've witnessed a "here today, gone tomorrow" trend of brick bungalows, old churches, and two-flats being torn down and replaced by "cookie cutter"  buildings which compromise the "architectural and human diversity" of their neighborhood.

"Do we want to end up in a community where we have a street that's 75 percent condo buildings that all look the same? " Neal McKnight, president of the East Village Association, said to about 30 residents who gathered Monday at Happy Village, 1059 N. Wolcott Ave.

 Several buildings ranging from bungalows to 100-year-old churches have been demolished in recent months, with new developments proposed or already under construction on East Village streets.  The
East Village Development Boom
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Following the community group's online post on the topic, the brainstorm session introduced ideas for keeping what McKnight called the "historic stock" of East Village intact.

Ideas to curb, or at least create more diverse kinds of developments, included making permits to demolish homes built prior to 1950 more expensive, working with the city to incentivize developers to renovate existing structure without tearing them down, and even "down-zoning" streets.

Down-zoning would mean that a small single family home, for instance, couldn't be torn down and replaced with three-story buildings with 1,400 square-foot, two-bedroom condos, which are being built at a fast clip in the East Village.

McKnight said the goal of the conversation is to develop "a community overlay" or plan for East Village, so that new construction will be more diverse and "expand the pool of potential buyers" to the area.

East Village has changed over the past 10 years.

A city-issued 2002 report, "A Plan for Chicago's Near Northwest Side," described the majority of East Village homes as bungalows, single family houses, two and three flats and four-story walk up buildings.

But in the end, McKnight acknowledged, "Money talks and it's not hard to get a demolition permit."

"I fear we are victims of our own good fortune," he added.

Greg Nagel, a local real estate agent, said he believes there needs to be incentives for developers to "build well" and avoid cheap masonry-like, split-faced block, which is too porous and reduces a home's value.

On the other side of the issue, demolition of single family homes and the construction of condos and apartments gives younger residents and those who cannot afford stand-alone homes an opportunity to move into the area.

Developer Steve Fifield told the group there is "a need for one-bedroom apartments" in East Village. 

For the past year, Fifield has been trying to get the community group's approval on a project for an empty lot at 1822-50 W. Chicago Ave. just east of Damen Avenue.

Initially a 71-unit project, the proposed four-story development was reduced to 59 apartments and 10,000 square-feet of retail on the ground level, Fifield said.

Made of glass, aluminum, stone, and plaster, the building would include five studios, 18 one-bedrooms, 24 two-bedrooms and 12 three-bedroom apartments.

Under the existing zoning, the maximum number of units Fifield could build on the 37,000 square-foot lot is 37, due to a minimum requirement of one unit per 1,000 square feet. He is seeking to "up zone" the lot to complete his 59-unit project.

The conversation about density comes just before a East Village Association board meeting next Monday, where the group will review another developer's plan to construct a 7-story, 45-unit apartment building at 1515-1517 N. Haddon Ave.

That proposed development would require a vintage two-flat building at 1517 W. Haddon St. built in 1915, as well as an adjacent property at 1515 W. Haddon St., to be demolished.

Because the buildings are within 600-feet of public transit, the developers would not be required to provide parking to the residents of the 45 apartments.

If the Haddon Avenue project gets approval from the Association and the City Council, it would be the second transit-orientated development in East Village.

Last month, a 99-unit apartment tower at 1611 W. Division St. opened with no parking spaces because it's located within steps of the CTA Division Blue Line "L" station and in front of two bus stops.

After the meeting, East Village resident Andy Kaplan, who's lived in a condo since 2004, said he believes, "If people who have lived here for a long time feel like the historic character of the neighborhood is changing, then it's time to have a conversation."

To give your feedback to the East Village Association, visit the neighborhood group's blog.