CHICAGO — A group of Jefferson Park residents filed a lawsuit against the City of Chicago and 45th Ward Ald. John Arena on Thursday to prevent the construction of a five-story storage facility in the heart of the neighborhood, saying its approval arose from an "illegal process" that bypassed traditional regulatory rules.
At issue is a legal agreement between the alderman the LSC Development, which plans to demolish a vacant three-story building at 5150 N. Northwest Hwy. and build a 68-foot warehouse on part of the property.
The alderman has invited a second developer, Full Circle Communities, to build a 100-unit mixed-income apartment complex on the other half of the property, which is currently owned by LSC Development. The apartment developers have not submitted their proposal, which they say would prioritize veterans and people with disabilities, for planning or zoning approval.
In 2016, LSC Development planned to renovate the existing building, but Arena changed the property's zoning before work could begin 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," he later said.
But the developer sued the city and alderman over the last-minute change, alleging Arena's "unreasonable neglect" caused the company "substantial financial damage."
The legal fight culminated in a settlement signed on Jan. 27 — one day after the five-story blueprint was made public — compelling the alderman to "agree to support and not to challenge" the new plan or risk triggering the developer's lawsuit anew. The agreement also gives the City Council until July 25 to approve the zoning change allowing the project to move forward.
Those rigid stipulations prevent planning and zoning boards from giving the proposal a thorough vetting, and they shut Arena's constituents out of the process entirely, according to Peter Stasiewicz, who filed Thursday's lawsuit on behalf of the newly formed neighborhood nonprofit Northwest Side Unite.
"Zoning changes are supposed to go through steps, and the settlement agreement modifies that process by binding [officials] to approve the application when they're supposed to be reviewing it," Stasiewicz said. "It taints the proceedings, because the city knows that if they don't approve this, they're going to be out a lot of money."
The lawsuit cites members of the Chicago Plan Commission, such as Chicago Park District commissioner Michael Kelly, who joined a unanimous decision to approve the plan at a March 16 meeting after saying his vote was "based on the settlement agreement and the local elected official's support."
But when the plan came before the Council's zoning committee on March 27, chairman 14th Ward Ald. Ed Burke blocked its approval, saying he did not "have any recollection of the City Council authorizing the settlement."
The lack of clarity over who signed January's agreement on the city's behalf was another factor making the document "null and void," according to the text of the lawsuit filed Thursday.
"The city's corporation counsel can only sign an agreement like this at the direction of the City Council, and it didn't appear to do that here," Stasiewicz said. "You can't just have any random person from the city sign off on it and have it be done."
Arena called the plan's failure to win zoning committee approval last month a "minor delay," but a spokesman for the alderman said there was no concrete timeline for the item's reintroduction at a future meeting.
Stasiewicz filed an injunction Thursday to halt the approval process until the lawsuit is settled, he said.
The seven plaintiffs listed in the lawsuit all live or work within 250 feet of the property, according to the document. They allege that its construction "would be contrary to the public health, safety and welfare, have an adverse impact on property values and reduce their use and enjoyment of their properties."
But those concerns are just a "hook" to establish standing for the lawsuit, rather than a challenge to the design of the warehouse itself, Stasiewicz said.
"The lawsuit really is attacking the settlement agreement, not the actual building," the attorney said. "There's irreparable harm done when something is being built based on an unlawful process."
Northwest Side Unite, the neighborhood group driving the suit, was born out of a grassroots fundraising campaign launched last month to hold up the construction plan in the courts. As of Thursday, the effort had raised more than $10,600.
At a Feb. 9 public meeting called to discuss the warehouse and apartments proposals, most of the attendees who spoke excoriated the complex's affordable housing component, saying it would threaten homeowners' property values and attract crime to the relatively safe neighborhood.
But Northwest Side Unite is a "moderate" group purely focused on residents' concerns about building height and "neighborhood character," according co-founder Victoria Aviles, who said the group kept its distance from the "small minority" of opponents who were "saying unsavory things."
"We represent a middle ground of people who do want to see growth and development, but we want to see it done in a responsible way," Aviles said. "We feel like the Northwest Side has something to offer as a quieter, lower-density area that's not common throughout the city, and we want to make sure that anything coming through is on board with that community characteristic."
Another community group, Neighbors for Affordable Housing in Jefferson Park, has emerged to support the building proposals. They tout a petition with about 900 signatures.
A petition against the development holds more than 3,000 signatures.
A spokesman for the city's Law Department declined to comment on the lawsuit Thursday, saying officials had not seen it.
Arena's chief of staff, Owen Brugh, declined to comment as well, but he wrote that the alderman is "looking forward to bringing safe, reasonably priced housing to veterans and the disabled in our neighborhood."
Since he was re-elected in 2015, the alderman has invited a raft of new housing developments near the Jefferson Park Transit Center as part of a strategy to breathe life back into the neighborhood's business district, which is riddled with vacant storefronts.