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Logan Square's Future: Development Boom Changing Face of Neighborhood

By Paul Biasco | December 4, 2015 8:42am

LOGAN SQUARE — Anyone heading down Milwaukee Avenue in Logan Square these days is bound to see cranes, bulldozers and construction crews, some working into the night.

That boom, which includes more than 1,000 luxury housing units and mid-rise buildings, is bringing a new demographic and feel to the neighborhood. It's also raising questions about the future of Logan Square.

The influx of housing is expected to bring new thousands of new residents to the neighborhood along with money that never made its way to Logan Square during the last housing boom before the recession hit.

The difficulty will be striking a balance.

"That challenge is that we weren't able to foresee it as well as we would have liked, this trend coming, this wave of new development," said Daniel LaSpata, Logan Square Neighborhood Association's Housing and Land Use co-chair. 

The rush of new construction is also bringing questions surrounding Chicago's zoning process to the table.

Three different aldermen control part of Logan Square, and each has his own community process to determine how developments are OKd.

First term Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), whose ward includes the northwest end of Logan Square, voiced concern over the current splattering of developments and rezoning decisions at the other end of the neighborhood.

"When you see that hodgepodge of 'Oh well, the alderman let that person go up to six stories and the alderman let that person go up to 11 stories,' I think that’s when you begin to see developers playing a heavy hand in the alderman’s zoning decisions," Ramirez-Rosa said.

Developments in red include more than 100 units, in black include between 40-99 and in blue include between 1-39 units. [DNAinfo/Paul Biasco]

The construction wave comes amid strong discussions over gentrification and affordable housing issues that housing groups have argued are pushing longtime residents from Logan Square.

There are more than 1,100 residential units, the majority of them apartments, spread over at least 20 projects that are either under construction or have been proposed in the neighborhood.

The tallest project, which has been dubbed the "Twin Towers," broke ground last month after a year's worth of meetings and heated discussion around the development.

The development includes two 11- and 12-story buildings along Milwaukee just southeast of Fullerton Avenue and will include more than 200 apartments.

Next to the Twin Towers, a 120-unit apartment building — called simply "L" — is further along in the construction process.

The "L" — the first of several large-scale luxury developments coming to Logan Square — prompted protests from anti-gentrification and affordable housing advocates in June.

Monthly rents will start at around $1,500 in the "L" building and studios in the "Twin Towers" will start around $1,250.

The "Twin Towers" project sparked debate during a community meeting to discuss the development last year, with one critic describing it akin to landing "a small vertical town" in the neighborhood.

The biggest development coming to the neighborhood, a few blocks northwest down Milwaukee from the "L" and "Twin Towers," will replace the Mega Mall at 2500 N. Milwaukee Ave. The six-story Logan's Crossing will stretch an entire city block and include 240 residential units.

At least 10 percent of the units in each project are designated "affordable" to low and moderate-income families with lower rents as required by city ordinance. But there are still concerns over the developments' greater impact on the neighborhood.

Logan's Crossing is slated to replace the Mega Mall at 2500 N. Milwaukee Ave. [Terraco}

Supply and Demand?

Ald. Proco Joe Moreno (1st), who represents the ward where the majority of the developments are rising, has argued supply and demand economics are behind his decision to support the developers.

The alderman has consistently argued that density is not the enemy of affordability. Furthermore, he has forced developers to include affordable units on site in their projects, unlike other wards where developers are allowed to shell out millions to avoid including those units.

"If we keep density lower in a neighborhood of attraction, like Lincoln Park happened, the density stays low, the property dollars go up. And the only people who can afford it are those who knock down two- or three-flats and build a McMansion," Moreno said.

Moreno has taken flak from neighborhood groups such as Somos Logan Square over the approval of luxury apartment buildings, but the alderman argues he is adding to the affordable housing stock.

"It’s easy to scream and yell 'No! No! No!' But talk to the residents who actually benefit from the affordability," Moreno said in response.

The developer behind the "micro-studios" project is seeking approval to more than double the project to 135 units.

New Construction = New Business

New construction, new money and additional people are also bringing in new business.

So far that has included fashion boutiques such as Felt, and numerous trendy restaurants, bars and breweries. Two new breweries are slated to open along Milwaukee in 2016.

The perfect example of what is going on can be found at the corner of Kimball and Wrightwood avenues, according to Paul Levin, executive director of the Logan Square Chamber of Commerce.

A circus school is trying to move into a 107-year-old church building, a business that caters to millennials and children.

"In a nutshell, that's kind of a metaphor of what's been happening positively about the neighborhood over the last six to eight years," Levin said. "If you were starting a new business, a small business, where would you want to put it? You certainly wouldn’t want to put it in a deteriorating neighborhood.”

Members of community groups including the Logan Square Neighbors Association question who is going to be moving into these new luxury units and what kind of impact they will have on the neighborhood.

"I think it can be very daunting for affordable housing activists and folks who are trying to stay in this community to react to that many developments at once," LaSpata said. "I can see where people might feel overwhelmed by the pace of it."

Will the luxury projects bring in a new demographic to the neighborhood?

Will Milwaukee Avenue lose its diversity of local independent businesses due to rising rents?

What about Spanish speaking businessmen who serve the Latino community?

"These large developments impact the housing market in Logan Square by kind of giving a luxury perception for the neighborhood," LaSpata said.

The fear is retail landlords will hike up rents, forcing out small businesses that define the neighborhood.



The "L" project at 2211 N. Milwaukee Ave. is the furthest along of any major developments on Milwaukee. [DNAinfo/Paul Biasco]

The boom along Milwaukee has roots in the economic downturn in the late 2000s, according to Moreno.

In 2008, then-Ald. Manuel Flores put together the North Milwaukee Avenue Corridor Plan which sought to guide development through transit-oriented development, affordable housing plans and other design initiatives.

"The community was very frustrated with the blight of Milwaukee Avenue," Moreno said. "The economic downturn happened and now we have the opportunity to provide for development. This was a very thorough process."

While other neighborhoods in the city saw a housing boom during the 2000s before the recession, that development rush never fully made it to the neighborhood.

"Logan Square missed the development wave that came with the last housing boom, largely," said Andrew Schneider, president of Logan Square Preservation. "By the time it was really coming into Logan Square, the market collapsed."

When asked if the development boom, specifically apartment units, has reached a peak, Moreno said said he was working on data projections to find out.

"You have a neighborhood that's very attractive," Moreno said. "...I don't think we are there yet. When you have as much land as there is available, you do have to be cognizent."

Moreno said that he has denied a vast majority of development projects brought to his office.

"For every development that I quote-unquote, bring to the community, I see five that we don't even bring because they are so out of whack," Moreno said. "Easily five."


The "Twin Towers" project started construction in November along Milwaukee Avenue at Belden. [Wheeler Kearns Architects]

Three aldermen, one neighborhood

Milwaukee Avenue isn't the only portion of the neighborhood that's seeing a development spike.

A number of other substantial developments — including the "micro apartments" at 2328 N. California and three projects in an area a neighborhood group has begun calling "West Bucktown" — are all inching further along the proposal process.

The developer on the micro apartments plan was OKd to construct a 52-unit building earlier this year, but is seeking to expand the project to more than double the scope to 135 apartments.

Although that expansion was rejected by the Greater Goethe Neighborhood Association, the plan is still moving forward and was slated to be heard city's zoning committee last month. The measure was deferred along with dozens of other projects due to a formality and will likely be on the committee's next agenda Monday.

Moreno said he was planning to have a more thourough community process to discuss the changes during an interview this week, but said he supports the plan.

The main reasons he supports it is because the developer is making 15 percent of the apartments affordable units and that the developer is including green space, he said.

"It's a tradeoff," Moreno said. "If you are asking for something, what are you going to ask for in return?"

For neighborhood groups such as Logan Square Preservation and the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, having a consistent voice in the development process can be difficult.

Over the past few years there have been allegations of back-room deals, lack of true community meetings and many residents left feeling like their voices were left out of decisions.

The "Twin Towers" project, for example, included a single community meeting and once the plans were revised, there was never a second meeting to discuss them although the project required a major zoning change.

"Development in the neighborhood on vacant land is one thing. But what we've seen over the past four years is development that has resulted in a loss of the neighborhood fabric," Schneider said.

The neighborhood is a jigsaw of three wards with three aldermen, three aldermanic staffs and three ways of moving developments forward.

The community organizations do not have any official decision-making powers but often serve as voices for residents.

Most aldermen host community meetings for major projects such as the Mega Mall, but other projects are sometimes brought to the City Council's zoning committee without community input.

"We would like to see a robust community process for all development," Schneider, of Logan Square Preservation, said.

Alderman Ramirez-Rosa, said one of the biggest concerns he heard from residents while campaigning was around a lack of transparency when it comes to zoning decisions.

"It's one thing to have a meeting and use it as a dog-and-pony show," Ramirez-Rosa said. "It's another to say I'm going to have a meeting and I'm going to put the results of that meeting in the public's eye."

Ramirez-Rosa put zoning changes on hold during the first five months of his term while crafting a community zoning and development plan, which was used for the first time Wednesday night to discuss rezoning a church to allow a circus school to move in.

The community meeting was recorded, including comments from residents, and the minutes are going to be posted on Ramirez-Rosa's website.

He plans to continue that process for any zoning change decisions.

The hope is that decisions "are not the result of a campaign contribution or some back room deal," Rosa-Ramirez said.

"One of the number one complaints that I heard about my predecessor is that folks felt like developers and certain well-connected people had more of a say in zoning decisions than local residents," he said.

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