NORTH CENTER — Developers met with North Center residents Thursday night to present their request for a zoning change — required for a proposed 62-unit, six-story apartment building at 1801 W. Grace St. — and got an earful about traffic woes created by Trader Joe's.
The message from residents: The size of the apartment project would only increase the amount of cars and congestion on a stretch of Grace Street where residents said traffic is already "relentless" due to the Trader Joe's at 3745 N. Lincoln Ave., which is right next to the proposed development.
"I'm concerned about density. That's a lot of units on a small piece of land," said James Keating, echoing the comments of many of his neighbors. "This is a side street, and a small one."
"We're doing everything we can in our design to minimize the impact," responded Michael Werthmann, who's conducting traffic studies on behalf of the development. "There's only so much we can do with Trader Joe's — it's already there."
Werthmann said research shows only 40 percent of people in the area drive to work and cited an "abundance of alternate modes of transit," including the nearby Addison Brown Line stop and bus routes on Damen and Ashland avenues.
Keating countered, "It's a pipe dream ... that it's going to be a transit-oriented community."
The apartments would sit on the site of the former Hines Lumber building, purchased for $2.6 million in 2003 by the Chicago Transit Authority to use as a staging area during the Brown Line renovation project. The 27,000-square-foot parcel, which sold in 2013 for $480,000, sits between Metra tracks to the east and "L" tracks to the west.
Uses allowed under the site's current manufacturing zoning include shopping centers, storage buildings and car repair, but no residential, hence the developer's request for a zoning change, which requires the support of Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th).
Architect Jonathan Splitt said the project would encompass 61,000 square feet and top out at 69 feet high — more than 20 feet lower than the Lofts at 1800, a condo building across the street, he said.
Splitt's proposed layout allows for units that will range from one-bedroom to three-bedrooms — including six penthouse apartments — with rents likely $1,500-$2,900 per month.
Opting for apartments versus condos addresses a need for rentals in the community and, realistically, the noise from trains makes the location less attractive to homebuyers, said the project's developer Tim Sledz.
Residents of the Lofts at 1800 expressed concerns about their views and privacy, with their windows directly facing the new building.
Splitt said that he had designed recessed balconies for that reason and incorporated additional trees and shrubbery "to be as sensitive as we can."
Courtyards and setbacks of 10-12 feet offer additional green space, he said, and a "dog run" at the southern edge of the property will be open to the public and provide water retention.
"We were asked to make a green building," said Splitt.
Though a handful of residents deemed the project "perfect" and "just what the neighborhood needs," the majority of the 40 people in attendance came to air their pent-up frustration regarding congestion on Grace Street, which they said becomes an "extended parking lot" for Trader Joe's, especially on weekends.
"Introducing that many more people, and the No. 11 [Lincoln] bus doesn't run anymore, that's the problem," said Richard Gaul, a lifelong resident.
Splitt attempted to pre-empt concerns by making room in his design for 66 parking spaces — including 12 "guest" spots underneath the rail tracks — which would keep cars off the street. Residents alternately found that total too high and too low.
Paul Sajovec, chief of staff for 32nd Ward Ald. Scott Waguespack, said that true transit-oriented developments require a less than a one-to-one ratio of parking spaces to the number of residential units and also incorporate first-floor retail to create a pedestrian-friendly environment.
"Then there's rationale for additional density," he told Splitt.
The architect responded that "It was the neighbors who asked for one-to-one."
Residents suggested zoning Grace Street for permit parking or turning the street from two-way to one-way as solutions to their traffic woes.
Amid calls to bring Trader Joe's to the table, Jim Poole, a staff member in the 47th Ward Office, reminded attendees that the matter at hand was a zoning change.
"The greater issue about traffic, that's a separate issue," he said.
Despite the opposition, the developer said he wasn't ready to abandon the apartment concept and switch to Plan B, which would be a manufacturing use.
"I think people got their concerns listened to, but it had little to do with the building," Sledz said of the evening's conversation. "I wish it was more on the merits of the site and less on the Trader Joe's parking."