AVONDALE — The high-profile development boom in gentrifying Logan Square, particularly on Milwaukee Avenue, is concerning for some in neighboring Avondale who fear huge developments will inevitably encroach on their quaint neighborhood.
In an effort to thwart developers, a coalition of business and property owners are demanding 35th Ward Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa change the zoning on their stretch of Milwaukee Avenue.
The coalition is asking the alderman to rezone all of Milwaukee from Central Park to Kimball avenues to a more "appropriate" zoning designation that allows buildings with ground-floor retail and residential units above.
The rezoning would force new business owners and developers to come to the alderman to get approval for new projects that don't fit within zoning parameters, essentially creating a roadblock for developers who want to invest in the stretch.
In a letter to the alderman, the coalition argues that rezoning is a way to "get out in front of the changes inevitably approaching."
"As numerous press accounts and our own eyes can attest, investors are turning their attention to our once sleepy stretch of Milwaukee," the letter reads.
"Besides diversity and affordability, one of our most important quality-of-life assets is the well-preserved old Main Street of the 100-year-old original business district."
Billy Drew, a staffer for Ramirez-Rosa's office, said the alderman is reviewing the plan and continuing to collect feedback from neighbors before making a final decision on whether to introduce the measure at the next City Council meeting in October.
The measure will likely see a vote, if Ramirez-Rosa's track record is any indication. This spring, the alderman used a zoning change to block the redevelopment of the former Pierre's Bakery. Weeks earlier, he used a change in zoning to gain more control over the redevelopment of the former Sunrise Market site at 2700 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Lynn Basa, owner of the art-gallery-turned-community-venue Corner, 2912 N. Milwaukee Ave., is one of the driving forces behind the coalition.
Basa, who has owned the building since 2008, said she feels a responsibility to preserve the street's century-old charm, which already is slipping away with the entry of modern developments such as the condo building at 2860 N. Milwaukee Ave. and the Cricket Wireless building at 2931 N. Milwaukee Ave., both of which replaced historic buildings.
"The built environment is very, very much part of the quality of life here — the scale of it, the walkability," Basa said.
The strategy of changing zoning to control development is sometimes criticized for being a blunt instrument that not only promotes stagnation, but also gives already-powerful aldermen even more control over what gets built in their wards. But proponents of the tool like Basa argue it's a proactive measure that fosters more thoughtful conversations around new development.
"If [community input] is too much for [a developer] to take, if they don't want to listen to the community wants to do, then this might not be the place for them to invest," Basa said.
That opinion was shared with Maria Paula, an active member of the coalition who is planning to open a furniture and bookstore with her husband across the street from Basa's gallery.
"It's the way to protect the area and send a very strong message that it's how we want the properties to stay," said Paula, who's aiming to open her shop in the spring.
Both argue rezoning is "the most effective way" to prevent Avondale from turning into Logan Square, particularly the development-heavy area around the California Blue Line station.
"We're not against growth. We're saying, 'Let's slow down. Let's respect what we've got here. Let's understand what the benefits are of maintaining this street,'" Basa said.
Nicholas Katsafados, a local developer who specializes in redeveloping vintage buildings, is on the opposite side of the spectrum.
Katsafados, who is gearing up to renovate a building on the stretch, said rezoning the stretch would be a mistake. Right now, he's planning to cut up the second and third floors of the building and build four apartments, but if the zoning change goes through, he would only be able to build two apartments, which would hurt his bottom line — in more ways than one.
"Getting an attorney is a few thousand dollars, [the cost of] sending out notices, getting the variance granted — it's a whole rigamarole for what is usually [presenting to] a few community interest groups that is being proposed as a community meeting," he said.
"These are the people that are actually putting their money on the line, and you're trying to screw them," he added, referring to developers like himself.
But Katsafados said his opposition isn't just about developers and their bottom line. Changing the zoning would also hurt the surrounding community, he said, because it would reduce the housing supply, which would then put pressure on rental prices.
"Her value is going up," he said, referring to the modern developments popping up around Basa's gallery. "She's not being negatively impacted. Her aesthetics are offended. Hey, sometimes I don't like it when people wear blue around me, but they do."
Rather than changing the zoning to a low-density designation, Katsafados argues vintage buildings on the stretch should be zoned for high-density buildings to entice developers.
"My personal solution is offering a quick way to increase the density use for that building would make an old building worth renovating and keeping. That would be using the carrot, not the stick," he said.
If the measure passes, Basa is planning to work with other local organizations such as Logan Square Preservation and Logan Square Neighborhood Association, as well as city officials with the Department of Transportation, on other ways to improve the stretch.
"The timing is right. There's so much interest," Basa said. "Every single person I talk to ... they all have ideas."