Day of the Condo | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Day of the Condo 

Sparks fly as a developer reveals his plans and Uptown gets a glimpse of the future.

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By Ben Joravsky

Twenty years ago, folks would have been more astonished than angry if someone had proposed to build high-priced condos in the northwest corner of Uptown. Mark Weiss's plan to build 30 units on Clark Street shows just how much has changed. It's touched off a classic us-versus-them land squabble that's yet another indication, as if any were needed, that virtually every neighborhood north of Fullerton is going the way of Lincoln Park. "This is about more than tearing down a building for condos," says Laurie Hasbrook, who lives in the area with her husband and son. "It's about what we are and what we're going to be."

The building in question is a dilapidated two-story walk-up on the east side of the 5100 block of North Clark, between Winona and Carmen. It consists of five moderately priced apartments over a row of storefronts that include an art company called Rococo, a tavern called Linda's Inn, and a playhouse shared by two theater groups, Corn Productions and Sweetback Productions.

The block looks much as it has for the last ten years, but change is coming, moving south along Clark from Andersonville as young professionals move in and rents rise. Neighborhood maps put the block in Uptown. But realtors prefer to call it Andersonville (or "Andersonville South") because upscale buyers find the Scandinavian connotations appealing.

A few months back Weiss decided to buy the building, tear it down, and build a five-story complex with retail on the first floor and condo units above. The retail spaces would rent for at least three times the current prices and the condos would range from about $150,000 to $350,000.

"I've done eight or nine properties on the north side--my name's out on the street," says Weiss. "I got a call from a broker who said, 'Are you looking?' I looked, and liked what I saw. From the outset I wanted to work with the community--that's how it's done."

So he called 46th Ward alderman Helen Shiller, who referred him to Michael Kelly, vice president of the Winona-Carmen-Foster-Winnemac Block Club. As word of his plan spread, opposition grew. One immediate issue was parking. "The plan calls for 30 units and 30 parking spaces," says Hasbrook. "But what if a tenant has more than one car? Where will their visitors park? Clark Street's already congested. It's already hard to find parking."

Residents worried that the project was too isolated, impersonal, and fortresslike for Uptown. "I like everything about Uptown," says Hasbrook. "I know the people on my block--people I meet walking their dogs, people whose kids I meet at the playlot. It's ethnically and economically integrated. Our son, Stephen, plays with Cambodians and Vietnamese and African-Americans. I have tutored a woman from Bosnia. It's such a rich and interesting and wonderful place.

"What they're proposing is so out of place," continues Hasbrook, who's seen Weiss's plans and says the condos' front doors won't open onto Clark Street. "The costs will price many people out, so we'll lose our diversity. It's so anonymous. Its residents will be faceless to us. They won't interact. They will be cut off in their upscale enclave. The way it is now we have real space, places to see each other and be with each other. This will breed isolation instead of neighborhood. As a mother I want a community for my child, not a closed box."

Other residents, particularly tenants, worry about displacement. "A community like this is open to a lot of people," says Mike McKune, who is coartistic director of Sweetback Productions with his wife, Kelly Anchors. "It's open to all, especially artists."

McKune, his wife, and their three-year-old son Max live above the theater. "The space is perfect for a start-up company," says McKune. "It used to be a bookstore and then it was vacant. Then some guy was selling beds there made out of galvanized pipe. Where else would a company like ours go?"

The arrangement works well because the community's not only affordable but tolerant. Sweetback specializes in adult satire and parodies. A few months ago its poster advertising Superpussyvixengofasterkill, a parody of Russ Meyers movies, offended a resident, who raised the matter at a block club meeting.

"So many people spoke on our behalf and the issue died," says McKune. "We love it here. We're thriving here. It works for us and we help the community. I see people filing out of restaurants before our shows. So in that sense we're bringing people here and they're patronizing businesses."

According to McKune, the condo complex would disrupt the neighborhood's balance by forcing rents and property values to rise too fast. The working class and the artists would be forced out. "Their condo building might look pretty but the neighborhood would lose if it comes," says McKune. "It would lose its character. It would be just Lincoln Park II."

Weiss can't understand the fuss and consternation. He describes himself not as a heartless developer but as a counterculture kid from Von Steuben High who got his start selling jeans at Uncle Dan's over on Lincoln Avenue. Now he owns Uncle Dan's and he sees nothing wrong with Lincoln Park. It has Steppenwolf Theatre and those artsy boutiques along Armitage and Halsted. So, OK, they're pricey--still, it's art.

"My building's not going to be ugly and remote. I'm willing to work with residents, to compromise according to their concerns--that's why I got in touch with them," he says. "I think some of the people have gotten a little too emotional about this. I mean, it's not all that bad. I won't do anything that is so striking. There are five apartments in the building. It's not as though we're going to be eliminating vast amounts of multiple-unit dwellings. Yes, the retail tenants will have to make a decision as to where they are going to relocate their businesses. But that happens all the time in the city.

"I think the people in the neighborhood need to go through the process of learning about my plan. Oftentimes, change elicits fear. That fear comes from not having knowledge. All of us experience being afraid of things we don't know. Once people start understanding how benign on some level my development is they won't oppose it."

Many influential people from the neighborhood support the proposal, most notably Mike Pavilon, who's president of the Uptown Chicago Commission, the local chamber of commerce. According to Pavilon, Weiss's plan (along with a Tax Incremental Financing plan proposed by the city) is the sort of boost the area needs.

"For decades we've been looking for investment," says Pavilon. "For decades people have left the city. The population's down below three million. We had riots. We had people complaining about the lack of economic investment. Now here's this guy who wants to make substantial investment. Well, I say he should be applauded. I know some people are afraid about change. I understand that fear. But I resent the fact that people say we're trying to make the neighborhood less diverse. We have all sorts of programs that encourage home ownership among diverse populations. If anything, this project will make the community more diverse. Look, if we want any good solid investment we're going to have to live with some change."

At a block club meeting on the project held in December, the two sides filled the room and the rhetoric turned passionate. "In my opinion the developer's presentation wasn't well received," says Kelly. "They made it out as though we really needed them, as though they were moving into a neighborhood that was in poor condition. That offended some people."

Adds Hasbrook, "Weiss had his lawyer and architects and they were not very sensitive. [One tenant] said she had put her lifeblood into her business and now they were going to just get rid of her, to which one of the project's supporters said, 'That's your problem.' One of Weiss's architects said, 'Money and power will win. This is coming, the neighborhood's changing, so you better get used to it.' He wasn't being antagonistic. It was just a matter of fact."

Weiss's proposal hinges on a zoning change that needs Shiller's approval. She says she'll abide by the block club's recommendation. Its position is unclear. Some members, like McKune and other tenants, say they will fight to preserve the building. But the recently elected president, a developer named Hugh Hodur, urges compromise. "I'm trying to be neutral," says Hodur. "We have a zoning subcommittee to work with Weiss. We're going to see if we can come to a compromise on objections like parking."

With or without compromise, Weiss vows to demolish the current building. "I'm going to build on this site," he says. "If I can't build this plan I'll build something else that's within the zoning. So it's in the best interests for residents to work with me to get the best deal they can."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Machnik.

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