Size Does Matter | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Size Does Matter 

Lakeview's red-hot real estate market has developers seeing how far they can push the limits on buliding up.

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By Ben Joravsky

One day last fall, Jim and Deb Morrin woke up and found a three-story condominium complex growing in the yard next door to their Lakeview home.

The six condo units were being erected on a piece of land where a big old house once stood. The Morrins' reaction, a blend of curiosity, dismay, and disdain, has helped fuel another north-side land-use war. In this case, it's a five-month crusade to downzone their patch of Lakeview. "It's been more difficult than I imagined," says Deb Morrin. "We've certainly learned a lot."

What struck the Morrins is that the new building seemed so out of character with the area's older buildings. "The new structure occupies more of the lot than the old home," says Deb Morrin. "It's taller by about 12 feet and it's longer by 30 feet and it's wider by 4 feet."

Compounding their sense of being overwhelmed was a three-story condo building that had recently been constructed on the lot across their alley, where a single-family home once stood. The garage to that building went lot line to lot line, meaning there wasn't even a gangway where the new residents could store their garbage cans. "It was just too much," says Jim Morrin.

So last November the Morrins called on their alderman, Bernie Hansen. He explained that they live in what's known as an R-4 zoning classification with an SD-7 overlay. This means that the City Council, at Hansen's request, had already amended the local zoning map by creating a special district that further restricted height and density. "Under the overlay, new buildings were supposed to be no higher than 36 feet," says Jim Morrin. "But it was obvious to me that a lot of new buildings exceeded that requirement."

If the city didn't have enough inspectors to enforce the SD-7 overlay, then the neighborhood needed even more restrictive zoning language flatly forbidding three-story development. "Bernie suggested that we needed to downzone an area bounded by Diversey, Racine, Belmont, and Sheffield," says Jim Morrin. "Obviously we were not including the big commercial streets, just the residential ones. Alderman Hansen said if we can show that the neighborhood and the local community group, the Central Lakeview Neighbors, support downzoning, he would go along with it."

So the Morrins organized a core group of supporters, including neighbors Jim Edminster, Sharon Heald, Mark and Valerie Staublin, and Frank and Rhea Stephen Pons. They studied the zoning laws and put together maps and flyers and brochures, and they went door-to-door seeking signatures to petitions supporting their downzoning cause.

They also hired a surveyor who measured a three-unit condo building being constructed on a 25-foot-wide lot in the 3100 block of North Kenmore. "It was under construction, so we thought we might be able to do something about it," says Deb Morrin.

The survey found that the building was almost 45 feet tall, nine feet higher than the law allows. "Just from looking at other similar buildings I estimate that there are at least ten others that are also too tall," says Jim Morrin.

Their inventory of new construction uncovered another startling fact: in the last 24 months, 29 three-unit buildings, one five-unit building, and one six-unit building have been constructed on lots that once housed single or two-unit homes. That means there are now 98 units of housing where there once were about 40.

No wonder the area was so congested. No wonder traffic backed up on Sheffield near Belmont and Diversey. The real estate market was out of control. It had gone far beyond replacing old factories with new town houses. Now it was squeezing three-flats--with units selling for as much as $450,000--on almost every available lot. Clearly the city had neither the manpower nor the will to make developers adhere to the 36-foot height requirement. And of course it was unrealistic to expect developers to police themselves. The market was too hot, the urge to make money too strong to resist.

"There's no sign that the building boom is stopping, even though we're very congested," says Jim Morrin. "We're getting phone calls all the time from developers offering to buy our property for cash. In many cases they're looking for the land. They want to buy the property just to tear it down."

By January the Morrins and their allies had collected over 320 signatures from residents endorsing downzoning that would prohibit construction of any building larger than a single-family home. They turned the petitions over to Hansen and asked Terry Diamond, president of Central Lakeview Neighbors, to hold a meeting on the matter.

To their surprise they discovered resistance. At the February meeting of the Central Lakeview Neighbors, several residents argued that an R-3 designation was too restrictive--you wouldn't be able to put up dormers or porches or make basic improvements. Hansen made a plea on behalf of "little old ladies," senior citizens who have lived in Lakeview for years and might want to sell for top dollar now that they've retired.

"If you limit the use of property, you limit the amount you can sell it for," said Hansen. "Anyone knows that."

So the prodownzoning residents hired a real estate appraiser who prepared a report showing that prices had actually gone up (not down) in similar north-side areas that had been downzoned. "I would argue that a lot of these seniors are not making top dollar for their homes when they sell to developers," says Jim Morrin. "If they sell for cash to a developer who calls them on the phone, they're not receiving the benefits of putting their property on the market."

They analyzed zoning laws and discovered that R-3 would allow virtually any home improvement. They talked with Alderman William Banks, chairman of the City Council's zoning committee; he told them that, as Jim Morrin puts it, "downzoning was really the only way to go to fight density, since no way no how will you get a more restrictive amendment to the zoning overlays. They [the city] want to stop those overlays because they think it's piecemeal zoning."

And they blanketed the community with flyers calling on residents to turn out for a March 9 Central Lakeview meeting where a vote on the downzoning proposal would take place. About 200 people showed up for the meeting, and it turned out to be a rather stormy affair.

"Terry Diamond asked for a vote on the proposal that if we can't get the overlay changed we will do downzoning," says Sharon Heald. "Well, I had made the proposal at the previous meeting and that wasn't my proposal. I had made no mention of getting the overlay changed. I had proposed that we vote on whether to downzone."

People began shouting. Heald called out, "That's not my motion, that's not my motion."

For Heald it was a particularly emotional moment. "My aunt had died and I didn't go to the funeral because I wanted to be at that meeting," she says. "It's a good thing I was there, because that was not my motion that Terry proposed."

At another point during the meeting, Hansen suggested that the residents give him time to seek a more restrictive amendment to the overlay. "We reported what Alderman Banks had said, and Bernie said, 'Maybe I can get an amendment. I'm not intimidated by Alderman Banks. I'm willing to try,'" says Edminster.

The downzoning proponents objected that such efforts would only take up more time, giving developers extra months to buy property, demolish homes, and erect more three-flats. "When they finally got around to voting, it passed overwhelmingly," says Frank Stephen Pons. "They did it by a show of hands. There were so many hands raised for the downzoning they didn't even have to count them. We must have won 80 percent of the vote."

In light of that vote, Hansen agreed to introduce a downzoning proposal. Hansen says the new zoning designation will probably be passed in "early summer, maybe June or July."

In the aftermath, the question is why there was so much resistance to a proposal so many neighbors obviously wanted. Diamond did not return calls for comment. Hansen says he followed proper procedure.

"You're never gonna make everyone happy no matter what," says Hansen. "There are many views an alderman has to consider. I gotta do what I think is right for my ward. We got another dispute [over a proposed high-rise] at Belmont and Sheffield. The developer wants 12 stories and the community wants 4. I told them, 'If you guys can't get together I'm gonna cut the baby in half.' That's just the way it is. Some developers want as much as they can get and some people don't want anything. Well, we can't stop progress. So sometimes I have to step in."

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

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