WICKER PARK — As a real estate developer plans to make his case Wednesday to a mayoral-appointed city commission to build a single-family home on a piece of land some claim is a legally protected landscape, a group of worried neighbors are pointing to a $10,000 contribution from the developer to Mayor Rahm Emanuel's campaign committee.
"I am guessing [the developer] is going to win this time," said Craig Norris, a Wicker Park resident who noted a June 30 contribution from MCZ Development Corporation to the mayor's re-election committee, Chicago for Rahm Emanuel.
But Michael Lerner, the developer whose company donated the $10,000, said the donation and the project "have nothing to do with each other."
And a spokesman for Emanuel's campaign said the donation is not improper.
Norris, along with several other members of the Wicker Park Committee, plans to attend the Landmark Commission's Permit Review hearing Wednesday, where a MCZ Development-backed venture will try to win approval to build a 2½-story, 3,500-square-foot single-family brick home at 2117 W. LeMoyne St.
Lemoyne Acquisitions is owned by Lerner, who owns both an 1890s-era multi-unit home at 2119 W. LeMoyne St. and the adjacent empty property at 2117 W. LeMoyne St.
Opponents of the project said the side property is a "protected landscape" under city rules governing the Wicker Park Historical District, which has a number of such properties. The developer argues that it is "a developable lot."
The properties, each of which have separate property tax identification numbers, were bought together by Lerner in a $1.2 million transaction from one seller Oct. 17, 2013, according to county records.
If Lemoyne Acquisitions is allowed to build on the side yard, Norris said it will "clearly set a precedent that none of these yards are protected."
The staff of the Landmarks Commission has recommended to the board that the proposed project be allowed to go forward, saying construction of a single-family home "will not have an adverse effect on the significant historical and architectural features of the landmark property and district."
The plan has been opposed by neighbors as well as Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), and Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) who have argued that construction on the yard would "detract from the overall character of the district."
In March, the commission postponed a vote on the matter at the request of Fioretti. In April, the board was split in its vote, 2-2, halting the project.
The matter returns to the board Wednesday, 10 days after a $10,000 donation from Lerner's company to Emanuel's campaign was recorded.
Reached at his office in Wicker Park on Tuesday, Lerner said the $10,000 check was a donation from a March 18 Emanuel benefit, though Lerner said he never paid until June 27, when a campaign representative requested the check.
"We support the neighborhood and contribute to the city," Lerner said.
Pete Giangreco, a spokesman for Chicago for Rahm Emanuel said, "The mayor's campaign carefully vets every donation, a process that can take several days to several weeks, to make sure each complies with all ethics laws and rules the mayor has set forth, and this contribution does comply with all ordinances and rules."
Norris said he believes the way the Landmark Commission handles this case could prompt a flurry of development in the Historic District's other side yards, which are protected landscapes.
"They are trying to take the word landscape out of it. The zoning lobby is tremendously influential, and the Landmark Commission will look the other way. Real estate is heating up again; [Lerner] is influential."
Todd Mullen, a project manager who is working with Lerner, was asked if he believes his firm's plan, if approved on Wednesday, would pave the way for other developers to build homes on historic side yards.
"I don't consider this a side yard — this is a developable lot. We want a judgment based on our property and not other yards. We just want a fair hearing and we and the city staff people believe it is a developable lot," Mullen said.
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