JEFFERSON PARK — The three candidates trying to unseat Ald. John Arena (45th) in the Feb. 24 election would give residents more power to block unwanted developments near their homes.
Arena's support for apartment complexes that give people an opportunity to live near mass transit hubs and business districts has sparked a debate about the future of the 45th Ward, long an almost-suburban haven of single-family homes.
Some residents have blasted those multifamily developments — only one of which is under construction — as too dense, too big, too tall and fundamentally incompatible with the existing community.
Michelle Baert, who publishes a website and Facebook page filled with listings for family friendly activities as the 45th Ward Mom, said she would allow residents within a three-block radius to vote on whether a project should move forward.
"The people have been ignored," Baert said. "We have to take all of the politics out of these decisions."
Baert said she would abide by the outcome of that vote when making her recommendation to the Chicago City Council's zoning committee, which almost always follows the will of the alderman.
If elected, Chicago Police Lt. John Garrido said he would establish "a truly transparent process" that will include community input from the neighborhood "directly impacted" by the project. All project documents would be posted online, Garrido said.
"People move here to get away from density," Garrido said.
Michael Diaz, who works as an attorney for the state of Illinois in the department that regulates banks, said he would set up a 12-member committee.
"The current alderman has refused to cultivate a working relationship not only with City Hall and City Council, but also with the community," Diaz said in a statement. "We need a zoning and infrastructure committee to address the challenges of our diverse ward with resident input."
Arena said the process he has followed during his time in office "goes far beyond" the legal requirements and has worked well to ensure quality projects are built in Jefferson Park, Portage Park, Old Irving Park and Forest Glen.
"For the longest time there was no community input into zoning decisions," Arena said. "Now the community has an immense amount of input. And projects undergo an intense review."
An all-volunteer group of planners, architects and representatives of community organizations review large projects as part of Arena's 45th Ward Zoning Committee.
Those meetings, which Arena said take place behind closed doors to facilitate free discussions, have been "very productive."
Arena said some projects are necessary to spur economic development in a ward where business districts are pockmarked with empty storefronts.
"It is a balancing act," Arena said.
In addition, Arena said his office routinely notifies more residents than required about proposed developments and in some cases staff members have gone door-to-door to make sure residents knew about the projects.
"Every single project has pros and cons," Arena said. "The alderman's job is to try to mitigate the cons, and hold a reasonable conversation."
The flashpoint for this debate has become a proposal to transform a former concrete company storage facility across the street from the Jefferson Park Transit Center into a 48-unit apartment complex.
Before the housing crisis in 2008, seven single-family homes were planned for the site.
Opponents of the project — which Arena asked the developer to redesign — collected more than 650 signatures calling for it to be scuttled entirely.
If Baert's policy were in place, the project would almost certainly be rejected by a vote of its closest neighbors, many of whom are now displaying signs opposing the project in their front yards.
In addition, Arena faced fierce criticism for pushing through an ordinance that designated 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, opposed by the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association, also expanded the area that city law would allow dense developments with fewer than usual parking spaces to be built near the Jefferson Park Transit Center.
That will bring new life to an area that has struggled for decades, Arena said.
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