EDISON PARK — Heading into the summer of 2016, the gnarled concrete lot where Oliphant Avenue meets the Metra tracks looked to developer Hubert Cioromski like the perfect spot for 44 apartment units.
With a crowded strip of bars and restaurants on the next block, and a commuter train station even closer, dozens of new residents would be able to fold into the neighborhood's small-town fabric while stamping a city address on their tax statements, the reasoning went. And with more than 150 parking spaces, the building's effect on traffic would be negligible.
Neighbors begged to differ.
Mobilized by 41st Ward Democratic Committeeman Tim Heneghan, hundreds of Northwest Siders packed into the Olympia Park field house last June to stop the proposal in its tracks. The reaction was so intense that Cioromski and his colleagues dodged the meeting, and it devolved into a personal shouting match between Heneghan and Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st).
Cioromski spent seven months tweaking and scaling down the project, settling for 30 condos and more room for parking. But on Wednesday, an influential advisory group voted 7-4 for Napolitano to deny Cioromski the zoning change he'd need to move forward. The proposal was dead.
In the end, the alderman and Heneghan agreed: No matter how it was designed, a four-story housing complex just wouldn't fly in Edison Park.
'Exactly as it is'
"The people in this community aren't averse to new projects and development, we just want projects to fit the character of the neighborhood," Heneghan told DNAinfo. "This is a space surrounded by single-family homes, and if we get one big structure like the one proposed, it could set a precedent for more big structures all the way down Avondale."
This protective line of thinking "isn't anything new," according to Napolitano. Passionate residents have stymied wide-eyed developers in Edison Park going back decades, he said.
"You have a lot of people here who work for the city, and when they come back home, they want it to be their sanctuary," Napolitano said. "People are paying a lot to live in this neighborhood exactly as it is, and they don't necessarily want to see it filled with multi-unit rental buildings."
But as the housing recovery picks up steam and the neighborhood's home values rocket to new heights, some observers warn that thwarting large-scale home construction could reap unwelcome consequences — not just for prospective buyers, but for residents who have already planted roots.
'When something opens up, everyone wants it'
In a city that's seen a sluggish and uneven climb back from the 2008 housing market crash, Edison Park stands out for its unique allure. The single square mile of Tudor-style houses and boutique shops has seen a surge in demand among prospective buyers in recent years.
The average detached single-family home sold for nearly $481,000 in October 2016, a more than 30 percent jump from one year earlier, according to a November report published by @Properties.
Home prices in the area have bobbed and dipped on a seasonal basis, but they've jumped out ahead of most other city neighborhoods, some flirting with pre-recession levels. The median home sale price, including condos and townhomes, climbed by about 27 percent between January 2015 and June 2016, according to Redfin, a national real estate brokerage.
The neighborhood's red-hot real estate market came to light last fall, when it was one of the only areas near O'Hare Airport not to see its assessed property values gone down because of increased jet noise. Real estate trends in Edison Park were so strong that they shook off any dragging effect from low-flying planes, the Assessor's office said at the time.
The neighborhood has always been "a draw for city workers and first-time buyers who are looking for that suburban feel," according to Redfin real estate agent Liz Palomar. Coupled with low turnover and high-performing schools, would-be buyers have flocked to the neighborhood since the recession, she added.
"People don't move out very often, so when something opens up, everyone wants it," Palomar said.
'These forces are already underway, and they're not going to stop'
But while demand for housing in the neighborhood has picked up, some say supply has not risen to meet it.
Since 2010, building permits were issued for just 26 new single-family homes and 21 condo or apartment units in the Edison Park, despite an uptick in residents, according to city data. That's compared with 115 new units built between 2000 and 2010, a period when the neighborhood's population saw a slight decline.
For Frank Icuss, who represents the Edison Park Community Council on the ward's Zoning Advisory Committee, the neighborhood is overdue for an ambitious new project, he said.
"You either bring some new life and new blood into a neighborhood, or it's going to decay," said Icuss, who voted in favor of Cioromski's condo proposal Wednesday. "There are plenty of neighborhoods that are decaying and stagnant right now, and there are others that are building nice, new housing that people can afford, and they're becoming more vibrant."
And in a neighborhood like Edison Park, fresh housing could ease the property tax burden of existing homeowners while revving nearby businesses, said Marisa Novara, vice president of the nonprofit Metropolitan Planning Council. The council calculated that Cioromski's proposal would have raked in about $261,000 in annual retail revenue and nearly $2 million in property tax revenue over the next decade, Novara said.
"I think we've seen this tendency for people to focus more on the potential problems brought on by new developments than on the benefits that may accrue," she said.
In 2010, 38 percent of Edison Park homeowners were using more than a third of their income to pay off their mortgages, up from about 30 percent in 2000, according to the Chicago Rehab Network. Anyone paying more than 30 percent of their income for their home is considered "housing-cost burdened" by the U.S. Census Bureau.
If property values keep ballooning without new homes to let some of the air out, the proportion of cost-burdened Edison Parkers will likely keep rising, Novara said.
"It's understandable when you want to keep a place feeling like home, but these forces are already underway, and they're not going to stop," Novara said. "And when you want to manage affordability, it doesn't necessarily make sense to shut down new development and call that a win."
'People cherish where they live'
But for lifelong residents like Napolitano, there's a key point that developers like Cioromski and policy researchers like Novara often miss, he said.
"When a developer sees that everyone's flocking to this neighborhood because they want a backyard and great public schools, the answer is to build more," Napolitano said. "But for people who already live here, it's the opposite. ... They know their property taxes are going up, and they want to live here anyway, because they know that's the price they pay to keep the community the way it is."
And as long as his constituents stand behind that trade-off, the alderman will keep shooting down zoning changes that pave the way for large-scale new developments, he said.
"People cherish where they live, and they want to safeguard it," Napolitano said. "They have every right to do that, and I'll protect their right to do that, as long as I'm representing them."
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