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Controversial Jeff Park Storage Facility OK'd By Key City Council Panel

By Alex Nitkin | May 22, 2017 6:11pm | Updated on May 24, 2017 11:48am
 The City Council's zoning committee voted Monday to approve construction of a storage facility at 5150 N. Northwest Hwy.
The City Council's zoning committee voted Monday to approve construction of a storage facility at 5150 N. Northwest Hwy.
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DNAinfo/Alex Nitkin

CITY HALL — A proposal to build a five-story storage warehouse in the heart of Jefferson Park overcame a thicket of obstacles and delays to score the unanimous blessing of a key committee on Monday, all but closing the book on a months-long saga that became intertwined with a plan to build mixed-income apartments next door.

Under the plan approved by the City Council's zoning committee, LSC Development 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.

Its zoning change sets the stage for construction of a 100-unit housing complex next door, which would rent 80 apartments below market rate and reserve up to 30 apartments for CHA voucher-holders. Developer Full Circle Communities has vowed to target the units toward veterans and people with disabilities.

However, Full Circle still needs to submit its own proposal to the committee and the Chicago Plan Commission before it can start building the apartments.

A projected view of the warehouse from the north [LSC Development]

The 3½-hour hearing Monday featured testimony from dozens of speakers for and against the proposal, filling a tense Council chamber with accusations of racism and corruption over an issue that's rippled across the city. Few in attendance mentioned the storage warehouse.

"It's ridiculous that we have to keep coming down here, week after week to tell you that the community has rejected this," said two-time aldermanic candidate John Garrido, a leading organizer against the development.

"What's the point of having a public process if you're not even going to listen to us?" Garrido said. "We're sick of this bull. We're tired of it."

The proposal sailed through the Chicago Plan Commission on March 16, but 14th Ward Ald. Ed Burke stepped in to block its passage in the zoning committee on March 27. It was again delayed last month, when committee chairman, 25th Ward Ald. Danny Solis, scheduled an unprecedented special zoning meeting to allow hundreds of public speakers to lend their voices Monday.

The debate has consumed the neighborhood since a raucous Feb. 9 meeting that was called to discuss the project, when speaker after speaker railed against the affordable units' potential to bring violent crime into a neighborhood known for its relative safety. Since then, opponents have mostly constrained their arguments to concerns about the building's height and its potential impact on traffic and school crowding.

"I've been living in the neighborhood for over a decade, and I can tell you that a building this tall will change the community," Sijis Aviles testified. "I chose to live in Jefferson Park because of its small town feel, and a higher building will just mean more density."

A projected overhead view of the warehouse and surrounding area [LSC Development]

The zoning change was explosive enough to spawn two neighborhood groups representing opposite sides of the debate. They faced off last week with dueling press conferences centering on the question of whether racial animus fuels opposition to the project.

Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st) joined opponents to say that Arena was "not listening to residents" in his ward.

But on Monday, a gaggle of alderman stood behind Arena when he said the neighbors who spoke out against the proposal in February "do not represent Jefferson Park, do not represent the 45th Ward, do not represent the Northwest Side, do not represent the City of Chicago."

"I am standing strong in the face of that rhetoric to tell those folks that you have the right to speak your mind, but in the 45th Ward we will speak ours," Arena said. "I hope this conversation will empower and embolden folks who have been silenced ... folks in the disabled community who couldn't fight their way past that kind of anger."

Many opponents of the warehouse on Monday called out the proposal's winding 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."

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 Council until July 25 to approve the zoning change allowing the project to move forward.

Opponents like Richard Gengler, a co-founder of Northwest Side Unite, seized on the unconventional process, saying Monday that it would "set a dangerous precedent" for future developments.

"After this, any alderman who wants to increase the value of a property can go and spot-downzone something, block development, invite a lawsuit and draw a settlement that bargains away our zoning," Gengler said. "How could you possibly let that stand?"

Northwest Side Unite has funded a lawsuit against the city, alleging that the proposal was born of an "illegal process" and would cause "irreparable harm" to immediate neighbors.

Attorney Peter Stasiewicz, who represents the plaintiffs, suggested that he would file an emergency injunction to delay the project.

Stasiewicz could not immediately be reached for comment on Monday.