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Jefferson Park Residents Protest New Apartments: 'Don't Crowd Us In'

By Alex Nitkin | October 31, 2016 5:40am
 Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association president Robert Bank led a protest Saturday against changing zoning regulations to allow more development.
Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association president Robert Bank led a protest Saturday against changing zoning regulations to allow more development.
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DNAinfo/Alex Nitkin

JEFFERSON PARK — About 50 people spent an unseasonably warm Saturday morning marching and chanting outside the office of Ald. John Arena (45th), calling on the alderman to reject zoning changes that would allow a flurry of new development in the neighborhood.

At issue were six pending proposals for new residential buildings, including two multi-story complexes that would make room for hundreds of new residents a stone's throw away from the Jefferson Park Transit Center.

The largest planned project is for a 13-story tower, which would have 103 apartments on top of offices at 4849 N. Lipps Ave. Another proposal aims to build 48 apartments at the intersection of Long Avenue and Argyle Street.

Both would need zoning changes and special approval from city agencies to move forward, since the properties are now vacant plots belonging to long-defunct industrial sites. Arena had supported the developments at the center of his 2015 reelection campaign, touting the need for a wider base of customers to support local businesses.

But to Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association president Robert Bank, who took a leading role in organizing Saturday's protest, current zoning laws are in place specifically to prevent the kind of development Arena has encouraged.

"These buildings would be completely out of character with the neighborhood," Bank said. "This is a community of single-family homes and two-flats, and we want to maintain that. And if you look at the zoning laws, they're there to preserve that character."

The crowd spent more than an hour marching in a circle in front of the alderman's office, holding a mix of printed and hand-made signs while chanting slogans like "Don't crowd us in!"

Multiple protesters said the buildings would inevitably create "quality-of-life" issues for neighbors, most notably by threatening to exacerbate traffic and choke off parking for residents who live nearby.

"Parking is really important for people around here — people need to park somewhere, and [planners] have to understand that," said Colleen Murphy, chairwoman of the neighborhood association's TIF and zoning task force. "You could say that people should just walk instead, but people might not always have time to walk."

But driving and walking are hardly the only options for people who live less than a block away from one of the city's largest public transit centers, said Owen Brugh, Arena's chief of staff. The station marks the nexus of the CTA Blue Line, Metra Union Pacific-Northwest line and 12 separate bus routes.

"These projects are really geared toward young professionals, the kinds of people who are just starting out working downtown and want access to great transit options," Brugh said. Marketing toward the younger crowd should also undercut fears that dense development would feed the area's chronically overcrowded schools, he said.

As for parking, Brugh added, the larger proposals have so many parking spaces built in that the city planning agencies actually want to see them scaled back. The most recent proposal for the tower on Lipps includes about 250 parking spaces, he said, far surpassing legal requirements.

Still, neighborhood association members like Bank and Murphy said no single rationale could make up for Arena's willful dismissal of his constituents' wishes. The community remains "unified in opposition" to the new developments, Murphy said. 

Murphy added that she had gathered more than 1,500 signatures from neighbors in opposition to the apartment construction.

The proposals have proven so divisive, in fact, that they drove a separate group to splinter off from the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association last year.

After Ryan Richter lost his bid to become president of the association in 2015, he co-founded Jefferson Park Forward, a community group whose mission statement "supports development that is transit-oriented, pragmatic, well-designed and adds to the rich texture and history of Jefferson Park."

Jefferson Park Forward doesn't collectively endorse or oppose any specific projects, Richter said, but he personally considers the apartment buildings a natural addition to the area.

"Are they perfect? No. But they've gone through several rounds of being re-tooled, and I think at this point they'll be fine," Richter said. "I get why [other residents are] fearful and don't want to see that kind of development, but there's no real market for six or seven single-family homes right across from the Kennedy [Expy.] and a Metra station. Denser housing just makes more sense there."

Today, Richter said, Jefferson Park Forward holds monthly meetings and counts more than 60 dues-paying members.

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