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Welcome to Shoehorn Estates 

A developer finds his niche on a slier of land overlooking the Kennedy

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By Ben Joravsky

The northwest side is buzzing over a developer's proposal to build five town houses on a tiny, streetless plot of land squeezed between an alley and the Kennedy Expressway.

It will be, the developer says, a lovely little complex, with a flavor of Frank Lloyd Wright. Eventually there will even be a street.

Residents of the area call it the wackiest scheme they've ever seen, more madness from a city determined to cram every inch of vacant land with a town house or two. "Please don't tell me about Frank Lloyd Wright," says Ernie Cusentino, who lives near the site at Addison and the Kennedy. "You have to see it to believe it. There's no street! How can you build a bunch of town houses without a street?"

The community's a curious place for a Lincoln Park-like land-use war. It is, residents joke, "nowhere land," or the "pope's nose of the city"--an anonymous slice of turf without a trendy name (officially, it's part of Avondale) and no strong political identity. Even zoning officials don't seem to know which ward it's in.

Once in a long while it pops into the news, as happened a few years ago when residents successfully blocked plans to build a Greyhound bus depot nearby. But for the most part it remains what it's been for decades: a quiet, working-class enclave of modest single-family homes and two-flats.

"I'll tell you how anonymous we are out here," says Bill Bike, a resident of the area, with a laugh. "We have a nice park. It's called Athletic Field Park. We're so forgotten they couldn't even give it a name."

Yet gentrification is slowly making its way west along Addison, the tell-tale sign being the number of suited professionals who hike home each afternoon from the Addison stop on the O'Hare line. It was only a matter of time before the development bug moved in from Lakeview and Lincoln Park.

Sometime last summer the city sent residents a letter informing them that a developer named Jose Jorge wanted a zoning variance to build six town houses on the grassy lot that overlooks the Kennedy.

"I couldn't believe it when I got the news. I said, 'You gotta be kidding me,'" says Natalie Borucki, a Central Park Avenue resident. "I still don't believe it."

From a quick glance, it's easy to understand Borucki's amazement. The lot is a triangular-shaped patch of land about 190 feet long and maybe 100 feet wide. It runs along the alley just east of Central Park and just above the Kennedy. There is no access to Addison, which is a few hundred feet to the south. Access to Monticello, a major north-south street, is now cut off by a cul-de-sac. The front doors of the town houses would only be a few feet from the edge of the cliff overlooking the expressway.

As local old-timers tell the story, the land's been vacant for roughly 36 years, or ever since the Kennedy was constructed, when the state used its power of eminent domain to evict the residents from what was once the 3600 block of North Monticello. "I remember when there were houses here. I knew the people who lived here," says June Craig, a longtime resident. "The last two people who lived here wanted to stay but the state told them they had to go because there was no street. They had to take the state's money and run. So now the state turns around and lets someone else build there. It doesn't make sense."

In early September, Craig and about 30 of her neighbors met on the site with Jorge and his architect. It was not, residents recall, a friendly encounter.

"We kept asking him questions for which he had no answers," says Bike. "He told us that he had bought the land from the state earlier in the year. And we wondered, why would the state sell land they had once cleared? Are there any rules against developing it? Where were they going to put their trucks during construction if there's no street? How are the fire trucks going to get in here? How can you tell us this won't cause safety problems? He kept saying, 'I can't answer that.'

"We said, 'How are you going to build town houses if there is no street?' He said, 'There's a street.' We said, 'Where?' He said, 'According to my map there's 13 feet of street going right here.' This went on for a while. He said there's a street, and we said show us the street. It was like 1984--more is less and war is peace--real crazy stuff. He also had this real estate agent with him who kept saying, 'Don't worry, I'm bringing in quality people, no local residents, just quality people, like airplane pilots.' What's that all about, no local residents? Have we just been insulted? We don't want to turn this into the next hot area. This isn't Lincoln Park. We don't want this to be anything other than what it is--a nice, comfortable neighborhood."

While Jorge and the residents were talking, the roar of racing cars rolled up the cliff from the expressway. "I asked him, 'Why didn't you just take us on the highway for this meeting? I might have heard you better,'" says Craig. "He said, 'You couldn't hear? Don't worry, you didn't miss anything.'"

For his part, Jorge feels the residents were misinformed and he was poorly advised by the city. "I would have liked to talk to the neighbors earlier but we spent two months talking to the wrong alderman," Jorge says. "The city's zoning department sent us to Alderman Richard Mell and we spent two months telling him about our plans. We'd probably still be talking to him if I hadn't got a call from a reporter who said [Mike] Wojcik is the alderman. I said who? I never even heard of him. I'm wondering, don't those two guys, Mell and Wojcik, talk to each other? You'd think one would tell the other, 'Hey, it's in my ward,' or 'Hey, it's not in my ward.' I'll give them the benefit of the doubt--maybe they don't know whose ward it's in. They're always changing those lines, maybe they're as confused as everyone else. But you would think the city would know."

As for fire trucks, Jorge says residents have nothing to fear: "I don't know what they're complaining about with the safety issues. They make it sound much more terrible than it is. The city of Chicago wouldn't give me a permit to build something that's unsafe. That's no concern."

And the street?

"There is a street. Don't let them tell you there's no street. You know that cul-de-sac on Monticello? We're going to knock down part of the fence on the north end of the lot and build a connector to that cul-de-sac."

And how will the town houses blend in with the rest of the neighborhood?

"It will be really nice. Were not going to [ruin] the area. I grew up in Oak Park, I want it to have the Frank Lloyd Wright look."

As to what zoning laws allow Jorge to build, no one's quite sure. Due to a quirk in the city's zoning ordinance, Jorge says, he can build a 13-unit apartment building on the site but he needs a variance to build six town houses. "I can get five town houses up there tomorrow or I can get the 13 apartments up there tomorrow, but I can't get the six town houses without a variance, it's weird," says Jorge. "I'd prefer to build the six town houses. Six is more economical for me than five. If it's five it's bigger and harder to sell. And I don't want 13 units. Listen, I want to get along with the neighbors. They have nothing to fear."

Despite Jorge's reassurances, local opposition seems to be growing, as residents press the city to turn the lot into a park. "Just make it green space, keep it open land," says Bike.

Three weeks ago 30th Ward alderman Mike Wojcik met on the site with about 40 residents. After hearing the residents' gripes, Wojcik pledged his opposition to the proposal and promised to ask city zoning administrator Paul Woznicki to investigate as to whether the land could be developed. (Neither Woznicki nor Wojcik returned phone calls for comment.)

In the meantime, residents are circulating copies of a recent Crain's article. Greg Hinz reported that Daley administration officials had vowed to "crack down" on "ugly townhouse developments shoe-horned into sites too small to allow much except brick and mortar."

Hinz quoted Christopher Hill, commissioner of the Department of Planning, as saying, "We're looking to stop the suburbanization of the city. We want to produce green space for people. We want to respect the streets."

If they get another meeting with city officials, residents will want to know why the city tells Hinz one thing and allows something quite different to pop up along the Kennedy. "I think we're going to have to watch the city very closely on things like this," says Craig. "If you don't pay attention, they'll do whatever they want." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Bill Bike, June Craigh, Ernie Cusentino photo by Eugene Zakusilo.

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