RANCH TRIANGLE — Local residents calling for a major new park in the North Branch Industrial Corridor hit a brick wall in a public meeting Tuesday night on zoning changes being proposed for the area.
Rushing the issue for passage at this month's City Council meeting, the Department of Planning and Development scheduled five simultaneous public meetings in and around the corridor Tuesday, and Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) called for a sixth at the old Old Town School of Folk Music building at 909 W. Armitage Ave.
Smith urged constituents to turn it into a forum on the need for a major new park in the corridor, a largely industrial 760-acre tract along a 3.7-mile stretch of the Chicago River between Fullerton and Kinzie avenues. But Abby Monroe, of the Department of Planning and Development, tried to shut that issue down early in the two-hour session, saying, "Unfortunately, that's not the topic of tonight's meeting and I'm not going to take questions on that."
That didn't stop residents from raising it again and again in a fractious, occasionally confrontational meeting of more than 50 people in a packed house in the concert hall at the Old Town School.
Reatha Kay of the RANCH Triangle Association accused the department of "whitewashing" the issue, saying, "There's nothing that accounts for parks. You're encouraging developers to build big, which will affect our neighborhood."
Proposed zoning changes will open the areas immediately north and south of Goose Island to mixed-used residential developments, and residents in neighboring Lincoln Park fear the influx of new residents will additionally strain already overtaxed resources like the 13-acre Oz Park.
"What's in this ordinance about parks?" Smith said.
"That I don't have an answer to right now," Monroe replied.
Erma Tranter, a local resident and former president of Friends of the Parks, said the city was squandering an opportunity in not designating a major parcel for open space.
"We've been talking about it since Day One," said Ken Feldbein of the Wrightwood Neighbors Association. "And we've been getting ignored."
Smith pointed out that the city had ignored its own standards set for acreage of public land per capita in approving the North Branch Industrial Corridor framework plan that is dictating the zoning changes.
Many residents said now is the time to set those standards in the zoning ordinance being considered this month by the Plan Commission and City Council.
Rejecting a "piecemeal solution" of asking each new development to set aside some park space, local resident Lina Hilko said, "Realistically, no developer is going to have 10 acres of contiguous space that they don't want to make use of."
Many residents said the proposed ordinance puts the desires of developers ahead of the needs of the community.
"It's not all about money," Feldbein said. "It's about quality of life."
Mark Hoffman said the plan "is being built for developers." He called it "going on faith" to expect them to serve the community as well as their own interests if the city didn't set basic standards. "The bottom line is 'trust me,' and that has never worked in the city and it doesn't work now.
"What's the urgency?" Hoffman added. He said the current zoning of the area as a Primary Manufacturing District offered protections against residential development, so why not keep that intact and make zoning changes piecemeal instead of giving developers a clean slate to work on with little to rein them in?
When Monroe said there was no urgency, many in the audience laughed, citing the six public meetings in one night, Plan Commission approval set for next week and City Council committee and general approval the week after that.
"This is the fastest schedule for the approval of any comprehensive zoning ordinance in the history of the Chicago City Council," Allan Mellis said. "You should submit it to the Guinness Book of World Records."
Local resident Jeff Price was even more pointed after he showed up after previously attending the zoning meeting at the Fleet Management lot at 1685 N. Throop St.
"How did Sterling Bay know how much to spend on Finkl Steel if they didn't already know what they could do with it?" Price said. "This to me smells just like the parking-meter deal. This is just a dance and a show for the public."
Smith was incredulous the planning department did not have figures for how much money would be raised in fees imposed on zoning changes for mixed-used developments.
Ted Wrobleski, vice president of the Sheffield Neighborhood Association, agreed, saying, "Are they going to be adequate to build a new bridge across the Chicago River? Are they going to provide a new 10-acre park for the area?"
But Malcolm Lambe, of the Sheffield Neighborhood Association, chided residents who kept pushing vaguely for parkland and other zoning concessions, saying, "Some of you should have done your homework before you came here."
But he also granted that there was an "angst" among Lincoln Park residents who feel that development in the North Branch Industrial Corridor will affect their lives and they'll have little say on the ramifications.
"How do we feel comfortable tonight when we leave this meeting?" Lambe said.
Smith finally decided that residents did not feel comfortable with the process. "I really think another meeting is necessary before a vote is taken," she said. "They shouldn't have to guess at it like it's a black box out there."
Monroe said they would take that messages and others conveyed at the meeting back to the Department of Planning and Development.