CITY HALL — A controversial plan to build a storage warehouse in the heart of Jefferson Park scored the unanimous blessing of the Chicago Plan Commission Thursday, setting the stage for construction to begin as soon as a zoning change passes the City Council later this month.
The warehouse would be built on the same property as a proposed seven-story mixed-income apartment complex, whose developer, Full Circle Communities, won't be able to start building until its own separate plan is brought before the commission later on.
Under the plan approved on Thursday, LSC Development LLC would demolish the building now standing at 5150 N. Northwest Hwy., the former home of the FSP food distribution center. In its place would stand a five-story, 68-foot masonry building with offices on the first floor.
The City Council is expected to advance a zoning change this month that would lay the groundwork for both the warehouse and the apartments.
Before their vote Thursday, plan commissioners spent more than two hours listening to pleas from dozens of Jefferson Park residents, many of whom said the 68-foot structure would block their backyard views and spoil the neighborhood's small-town feel.
One neighbor, Victoria Aviles, presented a printed copy of a petition against the apartments proposal, which had more than 3,000 signatures. Like a host of other speakers, Aviles invoked a city-commissioned study of the Gladstone Park Corridor published earlier this year that called on the city to "allow new buildings up to four stories" along Milwaukee Avenue between Foster Avenue and Albion Avenue.
"We've all agreed to keep buildings under four stories, and we don't want to set a precedent for obscenely large developments to be brought into our quiet, low-density neighborhood," Aviles told the commission. "I hope you'll consider all of these neighbors who don't want 70-foot buildings in our ward."
But city planners, including Bennet Haller, who authored the Gladstone Park study, wrote in a letter to community groups that the planned developments "would not be out of character with the study," especially since the study also notes that "a mixed-use development with residential may be appropriate" within walking distance of the Jefferson Park Transit Center.
And on Thursday, Department of Planning and Development supervisor Noah Szafraniec said the warehouse is not out of scale with the surrounding area and shouldn't have much impact on traffic in the area.
Other opponents of the warehouse rehashed its winding and unconventional path to approval, citing a legal settlement opening up the city to a potential lawsuit if officials don't green-light the proposal.
In April 2016, the developer scored a permit to renovate the existing building and convert it into a storage warehouse, but Arena changed the zoning before construction could start. LSC Development sued the city in June, alleging Arena's "unreasonable neglect" caused the company "substantial financial damage."
Arena defended the legal settlement at Thursday's hearing, saying the move was "strategic, in order to ensure that there would ... be ample time to consult the community and work with developers on a plan that would inform the changing nature of the surrounding uses."
But Robert Bank, the president of the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association, said the move amounted to a violation of the public's trust.
"If we had a similar situation with a restaurant up for approval, we wouldn't be sitting here saying they don't have to adhere to a health code because of a deal that was worked out," Bank said. "Zoning is deliberate, and it's there for a reason. It shouldn't just be given away because of an alderman's bullying."
While speakers were asked not to mention the adjoining apartment complex, the plan for the new homes hung thick over the meeting, having been the most common target of neighbor's condemnation in public meetings and on social media.
The two-hour public comment period was of particular interest to Cathleen O'Brien, an organizer with the disability rights group Access Living, who spoke in favor of the proposal.
"I understand what it means to take pride in a community you live in, but what confuses me is why people who care about their community are advocating to keep blight," O'Brien said. "And the only reason I can think is that this has nothing to do with a storage facility."