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Wicker Park Side Yard Construction Voted Down by City, Neighbors Rejoice

By Alisa Hauser | July 10, 2014 8:37am
 Teddy Varndell and Elaine Coorens, longtime Wicker Park residents, were among several people who spoke Wednesday against a developer's plan at the Landmark Commission's Permit Review committee meeting.
Teddy Varndell and Elaine Coorens, longtime Wicker Park residents, were among several people who spoke Wednesday against a developer's plan at the Landmark Commission's Permit Review committee meeting.
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DNAinfo/Alisa Hauser

CITY HALL — Residents who protested a developer's plan to build a single-family home on land that they believe is a legally protected landscape are claiming victory after a city permit review committee voted 2-1 against the plan Wednesday.

"This is a really big day; we are happy. What's most important is not that we prevailed and won, but that this impacts policy thinking and gives us a precedent and foundation to go forward and work at preserving side yards in the future," said Ed Tamminga, chairman of the Wicker Park Committee's preservation and development committee.

Tamminga is referring to vacant land at 2117 W. Le Moyne St., next to an 1890s-era greystone at 2119 W. LeMoyne St., which members said was a "protected landscape" under city rules governing the Wicker Park Historical District. The district has several such properties.

 A house at 2119 W. LeMoyne St. and an adjacent lot, which some say is protected from being used for construction under city landmark rules
2117-19 W. LeMoyne
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The developer argued that the open property was "a developable lot."

The matter was first scheduled to go before the Landmark Commission Permit Review Committee in March but was deferred to April, when the projected was halted by a 2-2 tie vote.

Though the staff of the Landmark Commission previously had recommended that LeMoyne Acquisitions move forward with its plan to build a 2½-story, 3,500-square-foot single-family brick home at 2117 W. LeMoyne St., the permit review committee, after hearing several testimonies from members of the Wicker Park group, voted against the plan.

The properties, each of which have separate property tax identification numbers, were bought together by Michael Lerner in a $1.2 million transaction from one seller on Oct. 17, 2013, according to county records.

During the hearing, Mark Kupiec, a lawyer for Lemoyne Acquisitions, argued, "Double lots are not a feature of the landmark district."

"From our perspective these are separate lots. Very clearly, when the district was adopted in 1991 it was anticipated that new construction would take place on open lots. We don't feel that our request is unusual," Kupiec said.

A Landmark Commission staff member, Cynthia Roubik, showed examples of several other side yards that had been built upon in recent years. Roubik's research also indicated that the original owner of both lots bought the lot at 2119 W. Le Moyne in 1872 and the 2117 W. Le Moyne parcel in 1898.

"The timing of the lot purchased seemed to indicate that the greystone was not necessarily meant to include the vacant lot," Roubik said.

Neighbors such as Paul Dickman countered,  "The two parcels of land have been together for 130 years. Why break them up now?"

Addressing the commissioners, Elaine Coorens, a Wicker Park resident and author of a guide to the area's historic district, said, "You are all commissioned to be concerned about the history of our communities."

Permit review committee member Mary Ann Smith was opposed to the developer's plan.

"I will vote to not support the staff recommendations because I respect first the guidelines of the Landmark Ordinance and the elements of the district as created," Smith said.

The narrow 2-1 vote Wednesday came only minutes after a previous vote in the same meeting resulted in another 2-2 split vote.

Permit review committee member James Houlihan, after the vote was again split, suggested bringing the matter to the full Landmark Commission on Thursday as an addition to the agenda.

"Because this has been controversial," Houlihan explained.

After some whispering among the permit review committee members that was not audible or recorded, Houlihan withdrew his previous motion to vote on the plan.

Then, permit review committee chairman Ernie Wong reintroduced a motion to vote, and the vote was 2-1, with Houlihan abstaining, resulting in the project being voted down.

Houlihan was not able to be reached to explain why he abstained.

When asked if it is common for the permit review committee to not accept the landmark staff's recommendations, the city's Department of Planning and Development spokesman Pete Strazzabosco, said, "It's  relatively rare because [the permit review committee] generally agrees with the staff recommendations." 

"The permit review committee is an autonomous body with individual members, and there is no discounting the value of public testimony" said Strazzabosco.

Tamminga lauded Smith "for speaking on behalf of the integrity of the landmark ordinance " and called her views "'pivotal" to the discussion.

After the hearing, Coorens said she was "relieved but cautious optimistic."

"My guess is there is too much money on the table for [Lemoyne Acquisitions] to not try and make it happen the way they want to make it happen. There are several other side yards in this neighborhood that could be looked on in same manner. It's a slippery slope if we don't have the district preserved the way it is intended  to be."

Lemoyne lawyer Kupiec declined to comment on what his client's next steps would be. 

Lemoyne Acquisitions is owned by developer Michael Lerner, founder of MCZ Development Corp.

A $10,000 donation from Lerner's firm to Rahm Emanuel's campaign recorded 10 days before the mayor-appointed landmark permit review committee met on Wednesday alarmed some members of the Wicker Park Committee.

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