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Old Town Development Boom Worries Residents: Will 'Hood Lose Its Character?

By Mina Bloom | April 26, 2016 4:26am
 Plans to build a 13-story boutique hotel at O'Brien's Restaurant & Bar, 1528 N. Wells St., were met with fierce opposition from neighbors.
Plans to build a 13-story boutique hotel at O'Brien's Restaurant & Bar, 1528 N. Wells St., were met with fierce opposition from neighbors.
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Google Maps; Chicago Development Partners

OLD TOWN — As development continues in Old Town at a "furious pace," some residents and community leaders have expressed worry about the future of the quaint neighborhood and said they don't feel their voices are being heard.

At least seven projects — some of them 10 and 13 stories tall — are underway in Old Town, a neighborhood many residents value for its small-town feel.

"I chose to live in Old Town because it reminded me of Europe because I could walk to a bakery and stores," said Laura Meyer, who has lived in the neighborhood for 16 years. "To maintain that character, buildings need to stay three stories."

Reporter Mina Bloom talks about the concerns of Old Town residents:

Karl Hjerpe, who has resided in Old Town for 20 years, agreed, saying the "rash" of new construction could change the face of the neighborhood.

"We're used to this part of the city having small, Victorian buildings that don't go over two or three stories and having this old architectural style," said Hjerpe, who is also the chairman of the Old Town Triangle Association's historic district planning and zoning committee.

"That has come to define Old Town and Lincoln Park. As that goes away, it rips out the fabric of the community," Hjerpe said.

The most recent development announcement was a seven-story, 69-unit building with ground-floor retail and underground parking at 307-313 W. North Ave., first reported by the real estate website Curbed. A construction permit was recently issued to the project's developer, Chicago-based developer Sedgwick Properties, according to county records.

The same developer is building another seven-story luxury apartment building at 1325 N. Wells St. 

Check out a map of developments:

Old Town is hot right now, according to John Irwin, a real estate broker on the North Side.

"I think we're seeing a resurgence [in Old Town]. With the additional construction, people are rediscovering the neighborhood. Most people think of Old Town as the area around Wells Street, but I think people are rediscovering west of there all the way to Halsted Street."

Irwin, who specializes in residential real estate, said one of his recently listed Old Town town homes drew tremendous interest. 

"Everybody wants to live there," he said of Old Town.

The neighborhood's proximity to the lake, North Avenue beach, cultural institutions like Second City and the Chicago History Museum and popular neighborhoods like Lincoln Park and Downtown make Old Town a highly desirable place to live.

In a prepared statement, Marty Paris, president of Sedgwick Properties, called Old Town one of the city's most venerable neighborhoods. Sedgwick Properties did not respond to a request for further comment.

But some residents expressed worry that developers are losing sight of the neighborhood's charm, building modern "boxes" instead. 

Meyer said the neighborhood is approaching a "tipping point."

"I don't think people understand. It's not just one building. If people aren't there to protect [the neighborhood], the character will diminish," she said.

Fierce opposition from neighbors, who say the tall buildings will destroy the charm of Old Town, has not slowed the development boom.

A six-story, 60-unit building is coming to 227 and 233 W. North Ave., according to Crain's Chicago Business. The project's developer, JAB Real Estate, didn't respond to a request for comment.

A few projects are also in the works: A massive 250-unit development with 85 parking spaces replacing the historic Noble Horse Theatre building at 1410 N. Orleans St.; a 13-story boutique hotel at the site of O'Brien's Restaurant & Bar, 1528 N. Wells St.; and a 10-story luxury condo building at North Avenue and Clark Street.

Community meetings held to discuss both the Noble Horse and boutique hotel projects lasted two to three hours. Many residents said the buildings would set a "dangerous precedent."

New York-based developer Jenel Management recently bought three buildings at 1437-39 N. Wells. St., including the building that housed the shuttered French restaurant Bistrot Margot, according to Crain's. A message to the developer was not immediately returned.

Resident Paul Gaudette said these projects are happening despite community concerns because the neighborhood lacks proper representation. 

"The main thing we [need] is a group that advocates for the community," said Gaudette, who has worked with the Near North Unity Program's land-use and development group.

He pointed to the Noble Horse project, which was opposed by many neighbors at three community meetings but ended up receiving approval.

That opinion was shared by Jim McLaughlin, who said many residents "don't feel like they have a voice."

Old Town Merchants & Residents Association facilitated the Noble Horse meeting as well as other meetings with developers in the neighborhood. 

Responding to questions about the development boom, the organization issued the following statement:

"All neighborhoods evolve over time. Neighborhoods are defined by people; those who live, work and conduct commerce there. They are viable because of the people and the activities in which they engage. Over the years, Wells Street in Old Town has evolved greatly. Thirty years ago, there were virtually no residential buildings on Wells Street, today there are. Forty years ago, Wells Street was dominated by 'head shops' and considered unsavory."

The organization said Old Town has "built its reputation by its flexibility to changing needs."

Three aldermen — Brian Hopkins (2nd), Michele Smith (43rd) and Walter Burnett Jr. (27th) — are all responsible for different parts of Old Town, which Hjerpe said is part of the reason the community process for developments can sometimes feel disjointed. 

The offices of Hopkins and Smith deferred questions to Burnett, whose ward includes most of the projects mentioned.

Burnett did not respond to a request for comment.

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