Wreckers at the Gate | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

Wreckers at the Gate 

The ban on development in East Village hits a snag.

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During the decade she's lived in East Village, Denise Doppke has seen scores of historic houses come down only to be replaced by massive, aesthetically vapid concrete condo buildings. Doppke owns three rehabbed historic buildings on a block near Division and Damen. She'd like to see the neighborhood retain its picturesque charm, but her worry that it may lose its character is well-founded: According to statistics from Preservation Chicago, over the last eight years more than 217 buildings have been demolished in the one-square-mile area that stretches from Chicago to Division and Damen to Ashland.

Doppke and her husband, John Scheer, were heartened this spring by news that First Ward alderman Manny Flores was declaring a six-month moratorium on the development of multiple-unit housing in East Village. The neighborhood needed a break from wrecking balls and bulldozers, Flores said, or it would disappear before laws could be put into place to save it.

The moratorium began on April 1 and is scheduled to last until October. So last month Doppke and Scheer were surprised to find that their next-door neighbor, Konstantin Shelegeda, was about to be granted a permit to level a building at 1934 W. Thomas. The 105-year-old brick three-flat is what preservationists call an "anchor" building--it occupies a prominent corner lot on a street that for the most part remains historically intact. When Doppke and Scheer questioned Flores's legal adviser, Raymond Valadez, they learned there was a loophole in the development moratorium: while Flores could hold building permits for six months, he was without the power to hold demolition permits for more than ten working days. The city handles demolition and building permits separately.

Flores, who is an attorney, says he has legal precedent to hold building permits. In a 2002 decision in the case Tahoe-Sierra Preservation Council, Inc. v. Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, the U.S. Supreme Court voted six to three to uphold the legality of a three-year development moratorium enacted by the Lake Tahoe regional planning agency on the grounds that the moratorium was in the public interest. But that decision didn't address demolition permits. And while one of Flores's justifications for the development moratorium was that the city is in the process of enacting a revision of its 40-year-old zoning code, demolition isn't covered by zoning ordinances, old or new.

Scheer and Doppke felt duped. "They're not communicating to the neighborhood that there's only a two-week waiting period," says Doppke. In July the couple circulated a petition urging Flores to stop the demolition of 1934 W. Thomas, collecting 65 signatures in less than two days--"and that was without trying," Doppke says.

Doppke says that at neighborhood meetings Flores specifically told residents the moratorium would apply to building and demolition permits alike. "He told us that starting in November, and he's said that all along," says Doppke. "He's not been up-front."

Flores says he himself didn't learn of the demolition loophole until shortly before the moratorium took effect. But he insists he never told residents specifically that demolition permits would be held. He chalks up his constituents' confusion to the complexity of land-use law. "I think people misunderstood what we were trying to do," he says. "I'm trying to work with everybody, to explain to them what we can and can't do."

Peter Skosey, a senior staff member at the Metropolitan Planning Council--which is wrapping up a block-by-block study of the zoning needs of East Village it did at Flores's invitation--says that Flores is blazing a legal trail in Chicago by holding any city permits. But he calls the building moratorium "a blunt tool at best. It's like using a tank to squash an ant." And while Skosey concedes that the moratorium "was one of the few tools [Flores] had at his disposal," he points out that it's not much of one: the alderman's lack of power over the demolition permits "has all the savvy developers going, 'He can stop me from building, but he can't stop me from getting ready to build.'"

Preservation Chicago president and longtime East Village resident Jonathan Fine says it's news to him that the hold on demolition permits is limited to ten days. "If [Flores] never had the power to hold demolition permits, this has all been a grand illusion--a disappointing one," he says. "We were hoping to use the demolition moratorium in other parts of the city."

Fine fears that without such a hold, developers will continue to have incentive to tear down historic buildings before neighborhoods can be landmarked, a designation that prevents property owners from tearing down and rebuilding. Moreover, he says, the city's new zoning ordinance--approved by the City Council in May and set for a November launch--will be "pointless without some legal process of holding the line on rampant demolition. By the time tougher zoning laws take effect in the East Village," Fine predicts, "there will be nothing left to rezone."

Flores says he has an alternative plan: a City Council ordinance requiring developers to possess a building permit for a property before they can secure a demolition permit for it. That way developers who find vacant lots more sellable than the buildings that sit on them wouldn't be able to send for the wrecking ball. But the soonest Flores could introduce such a proposal is September 1, when the council next meets. And September may be too late not just for 1934 W. Thomas but for at least two other buildings in the neighborhood--a 113-year-old frame two-flat at 857 N. Paulina and a 112-year-old brick three-flat at 1057 N. Marshfield, both of whose owners also have demolition permits in hand.

Fine says a better solution would be for Flores and the city to fast-track landmarking the intact areas of the neighborhood. "The only thing that is going to protect a historic area is an official city landmark district," he says. "That's why we need to make more of them. . . . The city's landmarks division is understaffed, and it's understaffed by design--basically so developers can run rampant through the city and do whatever they want to."

East Village residents, meanwhile, are hoping a personal appeal will do the trick. Doppke says that she and some neighbors, with Flores's help, are trying to talk Shelegeda (who wouldn't comment for this story) out of demolishing 1934 W. Thomas and into "flipping" the building to a buyer who would be willing to rehab it. "The neighbors would like to keep this building," she says. "But we need better support."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Joeff Davis, Nathan Mandell.

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