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Children's Memorial Plan Heads for City Approval, but Lawsuit Threatened

By Paul Biasco | February 18, 2014 9:26am
 Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) released the final proposal that will go to the city's plan commission Thursday.
Children's Memorial Final Plans
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LINCOLN PARK — The plans for the Children's Memorial Hospital redevelopment scheduled to be presented to the city's Plan Commission Thursday are final, the local alderman said. But some opponents are threatening a lawsuit to block the project if it is approved by the city.

Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) Monday afternoon announced the plan was final in a detailed letter to constituents explaining her support for the two 190-foot apartment towers and the sweeping scope of the project.

"Together we achieved a reasonable development," Smith wrote in the email. "The majority of the community supports going forward with this compromise, reached after 2½ years of effort, rather than abandoning it for an uncertain future."

Smith posted the documents that will be presented to the Plan Commission on her website Monday.

She said she fought for 2½ years to reduce the height of the buildings in the development, which will be presented as the two apartment towers and a total of 540 apartments, 60 condos and a 160-room senior living center.

The proposal, which Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he supports, is set to go before the commission Thursday afternoon. If it's approved, it would be heard by the City Council's Zoning Committee on Feb. 27.

If the site is rezoned to support the development, a coalition of neighbors is considering filing a lawsuit, said Ed Burns, a neighborhood organizer who was involved in community hearings on the redevelopment.

A lawsuit "should delay things, hopefully, and hopefully brings Children's and [developer] McCaffery seriously to the table, which is what would have happened if we had an alderman representing those who voted for her," said Burns, who's also an attorney.

Local businessmen, who said they have suffered the loss of foot traffic since the hospital closed, are among those who support the site plans. 

Smith said the reduced height of the buildings is a "direct result" of a trade-off for an acre of open space, maintaining a few of the historic buildings at the hospital site and the inclusion of 10 percent affordable housing.

The plan calls for truck traffic to be funneled to an underground loading zone off Fullerton Avenue, which neighbors argue will snarl traffic on an already congested street.

Smith's final proposal moved the main entrance to one of the towers off Fullerton Avenue and outlines a series of infrastructure improvements, such as new turn lanes on Fullerton Avenue and a traffic signal at Orchard Street and Fullerton Avenue.

The Mid-North Association, which represents about 400 homes in the neighborhood nearest the site, released a statement opposing the proposal Monday morning.

The neighborhood group cited the near-unanimous position of those who spoke at a community meeting Feb. 4 against the plan, as well as more than 400 signatures on petitions opposing it.

The neighborhood group's stand is that the development would be too tall, too dense and "starkly out of character" with the surrounding area.

The association argued the zoning changes required to advance the project would set a precedent in the neighborhood for other large developments.

Association president Josh Glazer said Smith "obviously feels a need to dig around for whatever justification she can find, and the core issues are completely in violation of even what is expected of our community."

"We are expected to be a landmark district. We are held by these standards, and we are happy to live up to those expectations, and she's not," Glazer said.

Another neighborhood group, the Park West Community Association, plans to release a statement on the proposal Tuesday.

Smith said the plan received overwhelming community support at a Jan. 14 public meeting at DePaul University and that her office has received "well over" 2,000 positive contacts from ward residents.

Smith said that in December 2011, the developer presented a plan that "jammed over 800 units on top of historic structures and in bulky L shaped buildings," and in July 2012 she rejected a "gigantic plan" that included a 28-story high-rise.

"Consistent with every pledge I have made, the community was heard, and the historic zoning uses at this site have been honored," Smith wrote.

Smith and the developer of the site, McCaffery Interests, agreed to remove a proposed 11-story residential building from the plan, and in its place construct a five-story health club.

Smith's office was closed Monday for Presidents Day, and the alderman could not be reached for comment.

Smith has been touting McCaffery's revision to lower the height from 294 feet, which was proposed in July 2012, as a compromise. But neighborhood groups said the original proposal in 2011 was for an 18-story building and a 14-story building.

"I don't understand why [Smith] went from campaigning on a community protective platform to approving two 19-story towers and 105,000 square feet of retail," Glazer said. "I don't understand it, and I don't know anybody who understands it."

Glazer and other neighbors said they expect the plan to move forward through the Plan Commission and eventually the City Council.

Some opponents argue the plan is being rushed through the approval process. A version of the current proposal was first presented to the community in January after 1½ years of stalled talks.