CITY HALL — The owner of a "rotted" house in the Old Town Triangle Historic District was threatened with fines in the neighborhood of $150,000 Thursday for doing excessive work on the building and allegedly allowing it to decay.
The Commission on Chicago Landmarks moved Thursday to approve work on partial demolition and reconstruction of the house at 1720 N. Sedgwick St. in the Old Town Triangle Historic District, but while pushing for maximum fines to be assessed in court.
The owner later characterized the situation as a misunderstanding and lamented what he called the "insane torture" of city regulations.
David Trayte of the Department of Planning and Development testified that while the building had recently been stabilized by a court-appointed receiver, 54 percent of the exterior had been lost after a contractor exceeded a building permit and tore the roof off during the winter, leaving it exposed to the elements.
The commission authorized a new foundation and basement Thursday, but also called for the structure to be returned as close as possible to its original form, including the storefront facade on Sedgwick.
Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, cheered the move to return the building to its earlier form, while bemoaning the loss of more than half of its exterior.
Owner Joseph Younes did not attend Thursday's meeting and had previously testified that the building was "rotted" and all but unsalvageable, while maintaining he wanted to restore it.
Architect Allen Yanong testified Thursday he intended to do just that.
"My goal, of course, is to get this restored and back up to code," Yanong said. But he also granted the building had suffered from "overzealous actions by the general contractor, for sure, and likely the owner."
Commissioner James Houlihan called Younes "a non-attentive owner" and pushed for maximum fines to be assessed.
Lisa Misher of the city Law Department said, "It will be the judge making the decision and not the commissioners" on the fines. But she quoted the maximums as $1,000 a day for landmarks violations and $500 a day for standard Buildings Department offenses, for $1,500 a day.
"This would be a pretty substantial fine," said Chairman Rafael Leon, who did the math on the approximately 100 days since the city issued a stop-work order on the house in mid-March: $150,000.
Houlihan, the former Cook County assessor, said it was his experience that housing court was apt to go light on the fines if the owner shows compliance. But he inserted language into Thursday's measure calling for Landmarks Commission representatives to push for maximum fines in court.
The measure passed unanimously, and Younes faces his next court date July 13 at the Daley Center.
Later, in an email to DNAinfo, Younes blamed "the city's displeasure with my general contractor having removed some rotted beams which needed to [be] replaced from the roof support, as well as one large beam in the front of the structure" for what he tried to frame as a misunderstanding.
"A portion of the front of the structure had to be removed in order to replace the large rotted beam and It was in fact immediately replaced," Younes wrote. "The front of the structure and the roof were about to be returned to its prior condition. However, the city chose to immediately place a stop-work order on the property."
Younes called the threatened fines "punitive and excessive," adding, "I am confident that reason and fair-mindedness will eventually set in."
He insisted he had done all he could to comply with what he called the "insane torture" of abundant city regulations applying to work on a property within the Old Town Triangle Historic District.
"All of these things take time," Younes said. "The whole process is bogged down with bureaucracy, and I do the best I can."