WICKER PARK — A 15-story tower obstructing skyline views, plus car and CTA congestion and "lack of transparency" in the planning process were the top concerns expressed by neighbors who'd be living closest to a 200-unit residential development proposed for Wicker Park's southeast edge.
About 40 people attended a public meeting on Tuesday at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St., to discuss Centrum Partners' Wicker Park Connection," a mixed-used residential and retail Transit-Oriented development offering townhomes, condos and apartments just west of the Ashland Avenue and Division Street intersection.
If everything goes as planned, construction would begin at the end of this year and the homes would be ready in spring 2018.
Reporter Alisa Hauser explains the concerns and benefits of the "Wicker Connection" complex"
The Wicker Park Connection would create a path of homes anchored by retail storefronts in the 1600 block of West Division Street and the 1200 block of North Milwaukee Avenue. The development will be located next to 60 apartment under construction at 1664 W. Division St.
The tower would be 11 stories on the Division-facing side and four stories taller than that at the rear of the structure.
Hosted by Ald. Joe Moreno (1st), Tuesday's event came after 21 members of the Wicker Park Committee, a neighborhood group, voted to support the project earlier this month.
Moreno told the crowd he first defers to neighborhood groups to get feedback on requested zoning changes.
"Since this is a larger development, I felt it necessary to have another community meeting," Moreno said.
Centrum Partners' Managing Partner John McLinden explained that the height of the 144-unit apartment building is "a trade off" for offering open public space over the nearly 2-acre plot of land that has been underutilized for 30 years, most recently rented to a nearby gym for parking and before that, used for employee parking at a now shuttered K-mart.
"I don't know of any Transit-Oriented Development with this much open space," McLinden said.
An alternative to having a tall building would be to spread out the project's density through several mid-rise buildings, a design that sacrifices the public space and connection element of the project, McLinden said.
A key goal of the development, which offers 144 apartments, 17 town homes and 38 condos, 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.
Tim McCahill, who lives within 250 feet of the site and is a suburban real estate developer, challenged the tower's height, which he later said would obstruct the skyline view from his rooftop deck.
"I love everything about it except the 15 stories," McCahill said after the meeting. "I'm all for development; just not when it obstructs at least 15 to 20 homes who will lose their rooftop views."
McCahill lives in the 1700 block of West Ellen Street, where several vintage homes have been torn down to build larger properties with rooftop decks.
For Lisa Sromek, who recently bought a condo in the 1200 block of North Milwaukee Avenue, the already packed CTA Blue Line Division "L" stop is going to get worse, she predicted.
Shane McMahon, who lives near an 11-story, 99-unit building at 1611 W. Division St. across from the proposed Wicker Park Connection, said he has seen a rise in CTA usage since the mostly carless tenants moved into that Transit-Oriented development, the neighborhood's first.
"What about the stress on the CTA? We are hearing build by transit, build by transit, but the trains are packed," McMahon said.
Moreno acknowledged the CTA congestion challenges and said that planners from the CTA are expected to meet with the community this summer to discuss "adding more pick-ups."
McCahill asked Moreno about Centrum's "notification system" to residents, to which he was told that once Centrum applies for the zoning changes needed to build the development, postcards would be sent to all registered voters living within 500-feet of the site.
After the meeting. Moreno said he is "not that excited" about a private school possibly coming to the 2nd floor of the tower, which also would add to congestion.
But based on the feedback from the Wicker Park Committee and from Tuesday's meeting, which Moreno said was "collaborative with good questions," he said he is "leaning toward supporting" the development but wants to wait for more feedback.
Kyle Sneed and three of his neighbors who live along the 1200 block of Paulina Street abutting the development to the west wrote a letter opposing the project and addressed it to Moreno.
In the letter, Sneed said a 15-story building is something that would be seen in River North or Gold Coast and suggested that a tall tower would "not only set a new precedent for building height west of Ashland in the neighborhood, but also for developers to build skyscrapers located mid street versus on corners."
During the meeting, Moreno assured residents that a building of that height would not be approved anywhere else because there would be no land available to allow for such tall density.
Early Wednesday, Sneed said that he wants to make sure neighbor voices are heard because "the perception is that most are in support of it."
"We wanted people to be aware many are left out of the process and many neighbors actually oppose the scale," Sneed said.
Sneed took issue with the fact that the project was vetted through the Wicker Park Committee, a process he said "lacks transparency and inclusiveness" and is "backwards" because those living next door to a development site should be first to be notified.
"Many decisions about this development were made without true public input or the input of residents living within 250 feet of the project... Even the notice provided for the public meeting was lacking; it was buried in a 1st Ward email sent less than a week before the proposed meeting," Sneed wrote.
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