When Is a Landmark Not a Landmark? | Essay | Chicago Reader

When Is a Landmark Not a Landmark? 

The Wicker Park Histroic District includes Association House and the playground next to it, but open space in Wicker Park is a condo waiting to happen.

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On May 5 city officials will address planners from all over the country at the first Preserve and Play Conference, set up by the National Park Service, the American Society of Landscape Architects, and other organizations to promote "successful ways of preserving our recreation and entertainment heritage." There will be sessions on the need to preserve recreational spaces and speeches about Chicago's grand tradition of building lovely parks. One thing that probably won't be mentioned is the playground next to the old settlement house dedicated in 1905 by Jane Addams and known as Association House, in the 2100 block of North Avenue.

Designed by turn-of-the-century Prairie-style architect William Carbys Zimmerman, the building and the adjoining tree-filled playground take up nearly half the block. In 1991 they became part of the Wicker Park Historic District, but that may not protect the playground. "Think they'll brag about this at the old Preserve and Play Conference, like, 'Did we tell you about the playground we turned into condos?'" sneers Teddy Varndell, who lives near Association House. "They've run out of open space to build on, so now they're starting in on the playgrounds."

In 1997 the social service organization that occupied Association House moved its main headquarters to 1116 N. Kedzie. Last summer it announced that it intended to sell the old settlement house and lot, playground included. Association House's executive director, Harriet Sadauskas, says her group needs to sell the property for as much as it can get to finance the renovation of the Kedzie building and to expand its programs. "This is an asset for our legacy for the future," she says. "We had to make a tough decision to allow us to continue. Funding has been hard enough for nonprofits in the last few years. It is a financial hardship not to sell the whole property."

But people who live in the area, one of the hottest in the city, say that a property owner's financial needs come second to protecting the integrity of a landmark district. "What's the point of creating a landmark district if you're going to dilute it every time someone wants to cash out?" says Craig Norris, a Wicker Park resident. "If everyone had that attitude, there would be no landmark districts."

Earlier this year Association House had a contract to sell the property to Stillpoint Development, which planned to turn the house into 12 condos and build a four-story, lot-line-to-lot-line, 21-unit condo complex on the playground. After residents objected at a January 12 neighborhood hearing, Stillpoint pulled out of the deal.

But Association House pressed on. On March 28 the group's lawyer, Uve Jerzy, wrote a letter to the city "requesting a written determination that the vacant land portion of my client's property can be built on." It was a bold request. City officials usually won't consider changes to landmark districts unless they're presented with specific building plans. Nevertheless, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks agreed to let Association House make its case.

"Association House was asking for declaratory judgment from the commission on whether they could sell the land even without showing specific plans," says Norris. "That's a big benefit for them, because it sends a message to developers: hey, the city will eventually let you build on this land."

At the April 7 meeting of the commission's permit review subcommittee, 25 people spoke against the Association House request, including representatives from Friends of the Parks, Preservation Chicago, and the Landmark Preservation Council of Illinois. But the subcommittee voted in favor of it, based on a recommendation written by Brian Goeken, the commission's deputy commissioner. Goeken wrote that the playground was not "a contributing feature" to the landmark district and "could therefore, in concept, be developed with new construction."

The subcommittee's recommendation doesn't mean that a developer can start building immediately. Any plan would still have to be approved by the full commission and the City Council, and whatever is built can't clash with other buildings in the landmark district.

But the residents were livid. They thought they had an open-and-shut case: the playground is clearly in the landmark district--which, according to the city ordinance that created it, protects "streetscapes and landscapes" as well as buildings--and it's an integral part of Zimmerman's design. "The playground's in harmony with Association House--it is part of a campus," says Elaine Coorens, a Wicker Park resident who wrote a neighborhood history and tour guide. "If you put a building on that playground, you might as well just put buildings on any undeveloped lawns in the district."

I've been told many times by politicians, planners, lawyers, and real estate agents that when city landmarking bureaucrats make recommendations they're usually just doing the bidding of the local alderman. "The alderman's key," says one real estate agent. "When the subcommittee made that ruling it sent a message--Matlak wants it, so it's getting done."

Ted Matlak, alderman of the 32nd Ward, has made no public statement on the matter, and he didn't return my calls. Norris, Varndell, and other residents say he's told them privately that he's bound by law to make sure Association House gets top dollar. They say this assertion is contradicted by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that says public entities don't have to compensate property owners if landmarking lowers the amount they can get if they want to sell and by aldermanic statements in other landmark fights, such as the one now raging in East Village between First Ward alderman Manny Flores and local residents. Many of those residents say they have the right to make as much money as they can if they choose to sell their property, but Flores argues that the greater public good sometimes supersedes private property rights and that the city needs to preserve what's left of its past. "Over there it's sorry property owners," says Varndell. "Over here it's sorry landmarks. It's not based on the integrity of the district--it's based solely on the alderman." As if to prove this point, Goeken is backing Flores in that dispute.

The Wicker Park residents have hired a lawyer and are vowing to sue to protect the integrity of their landmark district. Sadauskas says Association House is about to close a deal with another developer who intends to build on the playground. Several real estate agents told me that two private schools are preparing offers that would retain the playground, and the residents hope they can persuade Matlak to pressure Association House to sell to one of them instead. If it does, the city will get bragging rights at next year's Preserve and Play Conference.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Murphy, Saverio Truglia.

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