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200-Home, Family-Friendly 'Wicker Park Connection' Project Gets Group's OK

By Alisa Hauser | February 4, 2016 9:57am | Updated on February 5, 2016 8:31am
 Latest designs for the Wicker Park Connection, a project combing a 144-unit apartment tower, 17 townhomes and 38 condos just west of the Ashland Avenue and Division Street intersection.
Wicker Park Connection, Feb. 3, 2016
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WICKER PARK — The "Wicker Park Connection," a development near the CTA Blue Line Division "L" stop offering 200 dwellings, got approval from members of an influential neighborhood group on Wednesday. 

After months of talks and design tweaks and a positive vote from the Wicker Park Committee's subcommittee in January, the committee's full membership voted 15 to 6 to support the plan at a meeting in the Wicker Park Field House.

The development includes townhomes, apartments and condos.

Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) is also planning to host a public meeting for more people to weigh in, though as of Thursday no date has been set. 

The largest proposed development for the area in recent memory, the Wicker Park Connection would create a maze of homes anchored by retail storefronts and a private school in the 1600 block of West Division Street and the 1200 block of North Milwaukee Avenue.

Wicker Park Connection Site Plan and Landscaping. [Hirsch Associates]

A West Coast based elementary school offering science and engineering, or STEM curriculum, led by investors from some of the most successful Internet and technology companies is in discussions to operate on the second floor of the apartment tower, Centrum Partners' managing partner Larry Powers said.   

The deal with the school has not yet been finalized, Powers said.

The development will be located next to a new 60-unit apartment building under construction at 1664 W. Division St.

In addition to a 144-unit transit-orientated apartment tower, the plan offers 17 town homes and a seven-story, 38-unit condo building. Each of the townhomes will have a two-car garage; the 38 condos will each have one parking spot; and residents of the 144-unit apartment tower would share 58 parking spaces in the building's basement.

Designated transit-oriented housing developments are allowed to have fewer parking spaces.

In the rental tower, most of the units are studio or one-bedroom apartments and one-fifth are two- and three-bedroom units. There will be 20 onsite apartments for lower-income renters, in compliance with the city's Affordable Requirements Ordinance. That ordinance mandates that certain new buildings over 20 units either allocate 10 percent of their units as affordable housing or pay $100,000 per unit to a city-managed trust fund that helps to develop low-income housing elsewhere.

If everything goes as planned, construction would begin at the end of this year and the homes would be ready in spring 2018, Powers said. Close to half of the homes would be owner-occupied, while the apartments would be rentals.

The unit mix came after months of discussions with the Wicker Park Committee's preservation and development subcommittee members who were concerned when the first design draft, introduced in August, offered 275 mostly small apartments. 

"We started the project with more typical rentals but now with townhomes and three-bedroom apartments, it will accommodate families and people that want to stay in Wicker Park. That was a big change based on your feedback and it was a good change," Powers told the group.

Powers said a key goal of the development is to connect Milwaukee Avenue and Division Street, using heavily landscaped open space to enhance the area as a safe gathering spot, with security and accent lighting. Currently, many residents walk to and from Milwaukee and Division using the vacant land as a shortcut, but it is not very populated.

In the serpentine-shaped, pedestrian-friendly pathway, about one-third of the path incorporates open space. 

David Genc, Director of Design for Hirsch Associates, the project's architectural firm, said that the plaza will also offer bubble jets — a water feature popular with kids — as well as public sculptures.

Leah Root, a Wicker Park resident, asked if the community could have input in deciding on the public art planned for the plaza.

"It could be our mini-bean, a destination," Root said, referring to Downtown's popular bean-shaped Cloud Gate sculpture.

Powers said five or six artists have been recommended to him and assured Root that a local artist would be tapped and perhaps a few potential designs could be put up for community review.

After the meeting, there was some discord about the height of the apartment tower, which would be 11 stories on the Division-facing side. The building is an additional four stories high at the rear of the structure.

Sean Mullen, a Wicker Park resident, said the apartments are "way too tall."

"People who have a nice view now will have a very tall building that blocks their view of Downtown. My guess is most will not know this until it happens," Mullen said.

Ed Tamminga, chairman of the Wicker Group's Preservation and Development subcommittee, disagreed.

"This project makes a good case for where tall buildings are appropriate," Tamminga said.

The tower will be across from an 11-story building at 1611 W. Division St.  and within sight of the area's tallest building, the 28-story Noble Square Co-op.

Robert Mantsh, a longtime committee member, said that his support marked the first time he voted in favor of a transit-oriented apartment project. Mantsh said he liked the fact that the Wicker Park Connection is both family- and Millennial-friendly.

"The cycle of young people who already go into debt during college and expect to land a great job in an expensive city and continue to overspend is about to get reigned in," Mantsh said. "People just do not stay 25 years old forever and will out grow these one-bedroom apartments with no parking available. Eventually, these young tenants will not be easily replaced with new young tenants."

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