WICKER PARK — A trio of partners seeking to build a massive development in Wicker Park has donated a combined $15,000 to Ald. Joe Moreno two weeks before they plan to put the project in front of city planners — a move that has alarmed one local critic.
"The contribution isn't just bold. It's obvious," said Teddy Varndell, a longtime Wicker Park resident and member of the Wicker Park Committee's Preservation and Development Committee, which discussed Centrum Partners' project at the group's monthly meeting on Tuesday. Centrum is seeking a zoning change to move the development forward.
Offering a mix of homes, retail and possibly a private school, the 77,500-square-foot site, dubbed the "Wicker Park Connection," would create a maze of homes between the 1600 block of Division Street and the 1200 block of North Milwaukee Avenue.
The Wicker Park Connection's proposed 189 units, made up of three structures, would include a 15-story tower with 131 apartments, 19 town homes, and a seven-story, 39-unit condo building.
John McLinden, a managing partner with Centrum Partners, and Graham Palmer, a partner with Centrum, each made $5,000 individual contributions to Friends of Proco Joe Moreno on Dec. 4, according to documents filed on the Illinois Board of Elections website. The two would not comment on the contribution.
Larry Powers, another Centrum partner, also donated $5,000 to Moreno on Dec. 4, bringing a total December contribution from Centrum Partners to $15,000.
On Thursday, Powers confirmed that Centrum Partners plans to submit their application for a Planned Development to the city by Friday.
First introduced in August, the ambitious project initially called for 275-units before being downscaled to 189.
Powers said the donations were entirely legal and were not an attempt to influence Moreno or the Wicker Park Committee.
"We have been working in a very collaborative and cooperative way with the Wicker Park Committee and we expect our plan to gain their support. Our support for Moreno has not factored into those discussions in the slightest," Powers said.
Ed Tamminga, chairman of the Wicker Park Committee's Preservation and Development subcommittee, said that the group postponed a vote on the project on Tuesday due to "a lot of conflicted sentiment" among the seven members over the height of the 15-story tower apartment building — not the donations brought up by Varndell.
"Developers are always making donations to politicians. My experience is Centrum has been responsive to the community. Centrum has worked with us on Aldi, plus there was also a whole bunch of planning on 1660 W. Division, too," Tamminga said, referring to Centrum Partners' estimated $37 million redevelopment of an existing Aldi at 1767 N. Milwaukee Ave. and a 60-unit apartment building underway at 1660 W. Division St.
"Nobody contested the density of the project or the open space but some wondered if the tower could be shorter and the density spread out more over the open space," Tamminga said.
Thirty percent of the site would incorporate open space. Kate Martin of Forum Studio, a design architect, previously presented examples of sculptures and planters that would double as seating and a water feature, such as a pop-up jet fountain.
Moreno is planning to hold a general community meeting to get public input on the Wicker Park Connection in January or February, according to Raymond Valadez, Moreno's Chief of Staff. The alderman did not comment on the donation concerns raised by Varndell.
After the Wicker Park group's subcommittee votes on the plan in January, the main membership will vote in February, Tamminga said.
Other real estate developers have also donated to Moreno recently, Illinois Board of Elections records show.
LG Development, which has two projects underway — a 57-unit apartment building at 1237-53 N. Milwaukee Ave. and a 36-unit apartment complex at 1647 N. Milwaukee Ave. — donated $2,000 to Moreno in 2015.
Smithfield Properties, which is bringing a 36-unit apartment building to Division Street, donated $5,000 to Moreno in June.
Gerri Baginski, another member of the Wicker Park Committee, said the amount of money involved in local politics makes her nervous.
"I hear alderman make a good enough salary but in order to get re-elected you need money. It makes me, as a resident of this neighborhood, fearful of the power that developers have," Baginski, a retired Chicago Public Schools teacher, said.
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