JEFFERSON PARK — Ald. John Arena (45th) Thursday night touted his plan to prevent strip malls from being built on vacant pieces of land near Lawrence and Milwaukee avenues as the first step in an effort to bring new life to the struggling Jefferson Park Business District.
"To be a vibrant city, to have a vibrant neighborhood, we need to plan," Arena said. "I believe in this model."
Arena has asked the City Council to designate Milwaukee Avenue from Giddings to Higgins avenues and Lawrence Avenue from Long to Laramie avenues a pedestrian overlay zoning district, which is designed to protect walkable shopping districts.
The measure would be the first step in an effort to reverse decades of decline and to fill long-empty storefronts by making the area safer and more welcoming for pedestrians, especially those using the Jefferson Park Transit Center to commute to work and school, Arena said at a community meeting held at the Jefferson Park branch of the Chicago Public Library, 5363 W. Lawrence Ave.
"Strip malls don't work well in an urban setting," Arena said. "We need to get back to what we had, but a 2014 version."
While some residents said they supported the measure, others said it would do nothing but inconvenience those who have lived in the area for decades and rely on their cars to get around.
"The culture is that people drive everywhere," Colleen Murphy said. "A strip mall is better. You can pull in and find a spot and find what you need and go on your way."
But Jefferson Park resident Steve Suski said the plan would help revitalize Jefferson Park and turn it into a thriving business district like those in Lincoln Square and Andersonville.
"The future is going back to the past, the best of the past," Suski said.
The designation does not change the width or the length of street or the sidewalk, or the zoning on any lot, Arena said. It is a protective measure, as proposals begin to be developed for vacant parcels east of Milwaukee Avenue along Lawrence Avenue.
Those lots are now being used as overflow parking lots for the Copernicus Center and parking for a limo company, which Arena called a "quasi-legal" arrangement that is necessary to handle large shows at the center, which has a 2,000-seat theater.
"Productive" conversations about the future of those properties are ongoing, Arena said, declining to give additional details.
But he said he thought it would be "advantageous" for condominiums to be built on the land that has been vacant since an ambitious redevelopment effort by city officials in the mid-1990s and early 2000s was scuttled by fierce community opposition.
Arena said it would make sense to build a relatively dense development of a "reasonable height" on the site because of its proximity to the Metra line, CTA Blue Line and bus lines.
A proposal to build a photography museum is under review by Arena's office, but the alderman said it was still in the early stages.
The measure authored by Arena would require that new buildings be built within five feet of the sidewalk, that the facade facing the street be at least 60 percent transparent glass, that buildings have a primary entrance facing the street and that all parking be in the rear and not be visible from the street.
In addition, new shops smaller than 10,000 square feet would be allowed to provide fewer parking spaces than typically required.
"We want to attract more shoppers, and allow them to feel safe and secure as they walk up and down the streets," Arena said.
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