AVONDALE — More than 150 neighbors packed into Hairpin Arts Center this week to debate a controversial proposal that calls for rezoning all of Milwaukee Avenue from Central Park to Kimball avenues in an effort to thwart unwanted development.
At the emotionally charged meeting, held on Monday at 2810 N. Milwaukee Ave., some neighbors lambasted Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) for introducing the measure to City Council earlier this month. They called the proposal everything from "absurd" to a "sledgehammer approach," saying it would impede progress and won't properly address the neighborhood's challenges.
Others, however, applauded the proposal, arguing that rezoning is the best and only tool available to foster more thoughtful conversations around new developments in the hot neighborhood. Those neighbors pointed to affordability and character as priorities.
If approved, the measure, first proposed over the summer, 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 another hurdle for developers who want to invest in the two block stretch.
Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa addressing neighbors at the meeting [All photos DNAinfo/Mina Bloom]
Under the legislation, now under consideration in the City Council, properties along the stretch would be zoned for retail storefronts and apartments on the ground floor — a low-density designation intended to liven up a retail district.
Ramirez-Rosa began the meeting by pitching neighbors on the proposal. He gave two opposite examples to illustrate the impact of zoning control: the Grace's Furniture boutique hotel project and the Pierre's Bakery redevelopment.
With the former, the alderman rezoned the site prior to the development proposal, which resulted in a more well-rounded project, he argued. The hotel "will be an amenity for the entire neighborhood" with guests spending their money along the Milwaukee Avenue corridor, he added.
In the latter situation, the alderman couldn't rezone the site despite threats to do so because the bakery building's owner, developer Mike Fox, already had the legal right to build within current zoning parameters. The alderman said Fox's project, which, as of a few months ago, called for at least 60 residential units and a 40-car parking lot, doesn't meet the needs of the community.
Ramirez-Rosa said when he introduced plans to rezone the property, Fox told him he was already allowed to proceed with his project under the current zoning and threatened to sue if the city tried to stop him.
Without zoning control "you don't get a say and ultimately things move forward without input from you or the community," Ramirez-Rosa said.
Before and during Ramirez-Rosa's remarks, tensions were high. Interjections from the crowd were met with ire from the alderman and his staffers who reminded neighbors to be respectful.
At one point, when the alderman asked the crowd if they wanted Avondale and Logan Square's Milwaukee Avenue to look like Wicker Park's Milwaukee Avenue, a cacophony of shouting erupted, to which a stern Ramirez-Rosa replied, "This is not a shouting match. We will not have shouting at this meeting."
The alderman next brought out three community leaders to talk about why they support the rezoning plan.
Among them was Milwaukee Avenue property owner Kurt Gippert who said the tool is the "only actionable protection ordinary business owners can procure" against unwanted development.
"A village grows, one store and one building at a time. An owner-occupied building provides stability, permanence and accountability," Gippert said. "I think it is reasonable to take a step back. It is important that parts of commercial strips be maintained as walkable business districts."
During the ensuing public comment, which lasted nearly 30 minutes longer than planned, supporters said by preventing large developments like the MiCa Towers from coming to their portion of Milwaukee Avenue, there will be less strain on the affordable housing in the area. Others made simple pleas.
"I'm asking people to have consideration for regular people in this city," said one man, who identified himself as a neighborhood resident of 25 years.
"We need affordable housing. We need to raise our families and we're being driven out. I can understand it may affect some people adversely, but you have to take into account the regular people. Without us, this city is going to to go down the tubes."
Critics, on the other hand, took issue with the so-called simplistic approach.
"This whole debate goes so much deeper than what we're hearing right now," said Joe Houlihan, a member of the Avondale Neighborhood Association. "We're trying to fix the symptoms of the problem, and not [doing] enough to fix the actual mechanism of the problem."
Houlihan, who works as a developer, called the rezoning plan "downright absurd," adding that it won't allow for great buildings like the Hairpin Arts Center, a five-story building where the meeting was held.
Prolific developer Mark Fishman was met with a chorus of "boos" and some clapping. In his remarks, Fishman stressed that small business owners — not just developers — would be negatively impacted in the plan.
Mark Fishman, a prolific developer who owns more than 80 properties in Logan Square, speaking during public comment.
"I agree with them on keeping with the character of the neighborhood. I have spent 30 years of keeping the character of this neighborhood. I have never torn down a building. I have kept the neighborhood exactly what it's been for 30 years. All of these storefronts were vacant," Fishman said, referring to the new stores in the building he rehabbed at Milwaukee and Kimball avenues.
"This zoning change will be a hardship on a lot of these shop owners and on me, as a property owner," Fishman said, adding that shop owners will have a harder time getting city permits if their sites don't fall under the low-density zoning designation.
Another critic of the rezoning plan remarked, "New people are coming in. We're the future," which was immediately met with jeers from the crowd. The man quickly clarified that he meant young professionals, to which Anthony Joel Quezada, the alderman's staffer, retorted, "Young professionals are usually white, too." Then more shouting erupted, with some yelling "racist!"
Seething, Quezada commanded the crowd, saying, "Excuse me, I'm sorry alderman. I will take 30 seconds to address this. I was born and raised in this community. I've seen 10,000 working class families — Latinos, too — move out of this community."
Ramirez-Rosa ended the meeting by imploring neighbors to fill out comment cards within the next two weeks by either visiting his ward office or emailing his staff at firstname.lastname@example.org. The comment cards will also be available to view on the 35th Ward website. The alderman said the feedback is part of his community-driven zoning process.
Ramirez-Rosa told DNAinfo Chicago he received a total of 51 comment cards from the meeting. Of those, eight opposed the measure, 39 supported the measure and four wrote general comments, he said.