Challenges and opportunities of change: residential and commercial building development in West Town


From Milwaukee Ave., two buildings to left of white building are 1515 and 1517 N. Haddon

With the economy on the uptick, the entire area covered by Our Urban Times has begun to get more proposed construction projects. Since various community groups are addressing these changes, Our Urban Times decided to ask all the communities to give statements about what development has looked like and what it is looking like for the future. That led to asking other segments of the area like businesses, aldermanic offices and business organizations to address the questions.

This first story covers feed back from the community organizations and two aldermanic offices in the City of Chicago's Community called West Town but only to Western Ave. on the west. The next story will cover the views of businesses and their organizations and the following story will cover the same issues in part of the Logan Square Community. 

During the fourth quarter of 2013 at least three community groups in Chicago's West Town Community east of Western Ave. saw projects that had a common thread. The main "features" are small units and high density  by developers who plan them to be transit-oriented development (TOD*) projects. Off the commercial streets like Damen, Milwaukee, North and Chicago Avenues as well as Division St., the opposite is true. There is a decrease in density and single-family homes are getting larger.

What does this mean for the community and how does it impact businesses and residents? 

Instances of change


Bright white building (to the left of the "white" building in above photo) is rendering of the proposed 1515-17 N. Haddon building

EVA (East Village Association) was the first organization to address a project under the 2013 revised TOD ordinance. EVA President Neal McKnight summarized residents' concerns for the 1515-17 N. Haddon proposed development by saying that the community was interested in area development that addresses the community's future, not in having projects built to meet today's market demands. 

EVA and developer Mark Sutherland negotiated some changes on the proposed Haddon project and it is moving forward.  Sutherland states that the 40 units on four floors, which range from studios to three-bedrooms, will rent between $1,200 to $1,350 for the smallest units up to $3,000ish for the three-bedrooms. The first floor will be commercial and the sixth level will be his private residence. The current 1515 and 1517 N. Haddon buildings, both unoccupied,  according to Sutherland will be torn down.


Commonwealth Edison property at 1510 W. Division

The Pulaski Park Neighborhood Association (PPNA) rejected a proposal by Steve Lipe of Lipe Properties for a Commonwealth Edison owned parcel of land at 1510 W. Division St. That proposed TOD was for 16 units on four floors with commercial on the first floor.  While the Wicker Park Bucktown Chamber approved the project in December, "Everything is up in the area at the moment," said Lipe who has the property under contract. 

At the December Preservation and Development Committee (PDC) for the Wicker Park Committee (WPC), three developers were present with plans for these type of projects. The largest, by LG Construction, was for a 6-story building with 51 units and a commercial space(s) on the first floor. It is to be extend from 1643 to 1657 N. Milwaukee Ave. All buildings currently standing are proposed to be demolished. The PDC and others in the neighborhood are not in agreement that the 1643 building should be torn down. In addition, the height and mass of the building was not agreed to.


Property now from 1643 N. Milwaukee Ave. and north beyond 1657

LG is to meet with the Bucktown Community Organization's Development Committee on Sat., Jan. 11. 

How community organizations vet projects varies. Some have a specific development committees some use their boards. Some have the organization's membership vote on some projects and not others. In most cases, the aldermen directs the developers to the group in others they ask for an opinion before they make a final presentation.


1643-57 N. Milwaukee Ave. are shown rendered on the left

Wicker Park
The Wicker Park Committee (WPC) which has two Chicago Landmark Districts, one residential and the other commercial, has a Preservation and Development Committee headed by Ed Tamminga, architect and long time resident. That committee works with both residential and commercial developers regarding new and redevelopment projects in the landmarks districts. In addition they review projects needing/wanting zoning variations.

"Reflecting on the neighborhood brings to mind some evolving changes to Wicker Park's neighborhood character. Most notably, 2013 saw a new theme from real estate developers then proposed before the recession of 2008 when all development stopped.

"Current residential projects have several new issues in common:

  • More units -- 40, 50 and more
  • rental
  • smaller sized units
  • few condo projects -- when proposed, generally 3 or 4 unit buildings
  • large residential rental projects -- proposed along or near the commercial corridors of Division, Milwaukee and North

"Contrary to the previous condo boom-time, these rental buildings have dramatically smaller sized units. Some units are as small as 350 square feet. In planning terms, this is a substantial increase in population density with both good and bad impacts. 

"On the flip side, there is a trend toward larger single family homes. Two and three flat buildings are being de-converted or multiple city lots are being used for one home. Occurring off the commercial streets, this strategy is resulting in a net decrease in residential density.

"Debates in the community focus on large buildings with smaller units and the place of automobiles. A number of the proposed, as well as built, developments have no or limited residential parking. 

"Wicker Park is blessed with excellent public transportation, especially the Blue Line. Future-looking urban planning theories promote the concept that fewer people in popular neighborhoods with good commuter options and a walkable infrastructure will elect to not own a car. Bikes, walking and shared-ride cars will become the new norm.

"Of special interest to the Wicker Park community is the imminent conversion of the 85-year-old Northwest Tower building, at Milwaukee, Damen and North Avenues, into a boutique hotel. This project has huge support from the community and should have a wide and positive impact on the neighborhood. The management of the hotel has international exposure and will be a major booster for the Wicker Park and Bucktown neighborhoods.

"Overall, with the return of the economy, Wicker Park looks to be appearing on the radar screen of every residential developer. The quality of the proposed projects is quite high and the developers are cooperating with the priorities of the community. " 

The Zoning and Planning Committee for the Bucktown Community Organization (BCO) is chaired by Philip Edison. He points out, as do others, that putting high density projects on commercial streets is a good thing to do. And, when that site is near to transportation, it is even better. Many people do not want or need a car, thus cutting down on auto usage. 

"Keeping a balance of unit types, ages and income-levels is important to the health of the community," Edison emphasized. "Older multi-unit buildings are being demolished on the interior streets. They are being replaced by single family homes. The 20 and 30-year-olds in those multi-unit buildings are being replaced by 30 to 40-year-old couples/families. 

"Zoning in part of the area does not permit building two and three flats, but event in areas where they are allowed, they are not being built." 

Steve Lipe, who is also part of the BCO Zoning and Planning Committee pointed out that the smaller rental units give people more flexibility. "Younger people generally do not have money to purchase a condo or home. In addition, if they have to transfer out of the area for their job, they do not have to worry about what to do with their condo." 

In keeping with support for more smaller rental units, Edison said that while the original expectation for the development at 1720 W. North Ave. was for 30 plus rental units, it is now going to be 17 condos selling for around $650,000.

East Village
"There is still a great deal of demand for and construction of 3-unit condominiums," says EVA's McKnight about development in the East Village. 

"Because many of the open parcels in the East Village are now gone, this is putting pressure on the existing housing stock and threatening historically and architecturally significant buildings. 

"On larger parcels and any pieces near the El stop, the requests for smaller rental units is on the upswing. 

"On the commercial side we are seeing more infill of retail on Chicago Ave. This appears to be a reflection of higher rents on Damen and Division. Division is evolving more into an entertainment and a dining strip than a retail shopping district."

Pulaski Park
"We are having less young families in our area," says Kapra Fleming of the Pulaski Park Neighborhood Association. "They move once their children are about two-years-old as there is not enough space for a toddler in current sized 2-3 bedroom condos; cathedral/vaulted ceilings that are attractive to young couples, suddenly become death falls for little ones. 

"We have lost all of our young families, who have moved to suburbs or single family home neighborhoods farther northwest due to availability of units at affordable prices. School options have improved and are great now. There is Near North Montessori, St. Stanislaus's, Rowe Charter, LaSalle II and Pritzker, which are all great school options nearby. 

"The trend towards smaller units 800 square feet and smaller are totally not family friendly. Although there is currently a trend towards TOD and small units for young renters, they too have a problem with rental rates. A new generation of young, well educated (BA's) renters with huge amounts of college debt are becoming the  a new 'intelli-poor.' They, most likely, will never be able to afford a mortgage. 

"Units of 300 square feet are really just the size of a large hotel room, offering this type of housing makes for an extremely transient community." 

Ukrainian Village
"There is no major construction in the Ukrainian Village," says Paul Matwyshyn, President of the Ukrainian Village Neighborhood Association (UVNA).  "With the Landmarks District in place, development and rehab must follow Landmark Guidelines. 

"There are some conversions of two and three-flats to single families as well as cottages being rehabbed.

"As an area that was originally heavily religious Europeans, we had a lot of churches. Now many of those families have moved away or passed away and the congregations diminished. Some have been converted to condos and one on Damen north of Augusta torn down. Others are for sale. St. John's on Hoyne has been landmarked and developers and 2nd Ward Alderman Fioretti are talking.

Chicago - Grand
In the Chicago Grand area Lyn Wolfson, President of the Chicago Grand Neighborhood Association (CGNA) and Bill Bruss a resident and owner of Design Inc., 1847 W. Grand Ave., who is on the CGNA Board, present a comprehensive view of the southern part of the district. 

"Within the CGNA area, construction remains primarily single-family homes. Our neighborhood is different from Wicker Park and East Village and predominantly was single-family going into the development decades of the nineties and ought years," explains Wolfson. 

"We formed CGNA in 2001 because we wanted to maintain the character of the area which meant single-family, and that's why the community was adamantly opposed to having all the Central States Joint Board properties being turned into rental units.   

"We welcome varied affordable housing, but within reason to maintain character of neighborhood.  

After the community meeting, CGNA worked with the buyer of the Central State Joint Board properties to have a mix of multi-unit rentals, condos, and single-family homes.  

"New construction single-family homes seem to be selling very fast. Real estate brokers tell me several have sold before even listed on MLS; others within weeks of listing. I'm hearing sale prices $800,000 plus.  The new single-family going up at 1700 W. Erie is listed at $1.125 million. Current single-family stock also selling well.  Prices seem between $650-$750K."

Expanding on the development picture, Bruss says, "I don't see any trend for low-end units nor do I see a trend for smaller units. In our area there has been a surge of single family homes and larger condo floor plans. The Larger floor plans for multi-unit dwellings give the developers an opportunity to rent them out to a 2-adult household. With the mortgage/banking market fluctuating so rapidly these developers need to have an escape plan on a property they are building which will not be completed for 6 months to a year. 

"The single family homes being built in our area are maxing out as much building space that the current zoning will allow. There have been a large majority of builders requesting variances in the zoning to allow for the needed square footage. I do see that quality of the single family homes is on the decline because the builder still wants to make the same profit margin they did in years past.  

"The current 'interior Style' trends have been giving builders the excuse to use products that would never have been acceptable in the housing market in the 1990- 2010. It wasn't that long ago that an opening price point condo would have white laminate cabinets with a contrast color laminate counter top and white appliances. High-end duplex condominiums and single family homes would net the natural wood cherry cabinets, granite countertops and a stainless steel appliance package. The spaces would be filled with wood moldings, detailed coffered ceiling and ornate light fixtures. The exteriors were, at minimum, split face block or full brick and mortar. 

"Today's market is quite the opposite. Less is more! The 'clean euro style' has invaded the general publics radar. Clean slick interiors and exteriors featuring  laminated cabinets, whites or stainless steel appliance packages and quartz countertops. IKEA has become a source for kitchen cabinets vs. dorm room furniture for your kid. 

"It is very interesting to think what would have been perceived as cheap and low quality has now become the 'Must Have " in a single family or high-end condo unit. Exteriors are now being skinned with products years past which were used for underlayment substrates. This new trend has been great for developers. They get to spend less money on exteriors and the product will still sell.  

"My personal opinion is we are now creating  real estate inventory that is of lesser quality and higher maintenance. I have seen current home exteriors in need of repair before it is even sold. Wood surfaces bleach and stain from the harsh Chicago climate changes. Cement board siding applications,  anchoring systems, fail resorting in bowed and buckling exteriors. More painted surfaces  require more upkeep. But this is what the public is willing to accept. 

"The general public is usually slow to pick up on these problems. It will be a few years before the maintenance dollars will start to change the mindset of the buyer. This will result in a shift back to a more traditional substrate requirement. Just like the fashion industry...what's old will be new again !" 

Aldermanic views
"More density on commercial streets, particularly by transportation is a good thing. That is less car oriented development," says Raymond Valadez, 1st Ward Alderman Proco "Joe" Moreno's Chief of Staff. "The City acknowledges that TODs are more feasible. There is more walking and bike usage. 

"People are not ready to purchase, the trend is for rentals and they are willing to pay for the convenience of transit oriented location. The word is out, we have great neighborhoods." 

"We are for true transit oriented projects, but too often what that really means is tall and dense, no retail or public space on ground level with one-to-one off-street parking," says Paul Sajovec, 32nd Ward Alderman Scott Waguespack's Chief of Staff. " You've heard that off-street parking is the fertility drug for cars," he asks with a chuckle. 

"We don't want more cars but we want to protect our street parking by limiting standing and loading zones, residential parking zones and other things that take up street parking spaces. 

"More and more people want to live in the city and affordability is important. It is important to try to preserve existing building stock with true transit oriented buildings. A mix of adaptive reuse with new is for the best health of the neighborhoods. 

"Dynamics of cost is important for the commercial strips too. It is easier for a developer to put up a single story building on a commercial street than to have residential above. They can get a national chain to come in and take a long term lease but that gives you a strip mall."

While there is similarity of challenges in several neighborhoods, some face unique situations. The important fact is that each neighborhood is trying to address them and equally importantly are trying to work together to achieve their individual goals.

There are other components of these neighborhoods…retailers, their organizations and residents. Stay tuned...coming up next.

*"TOD (transit oriented development)is a type of community development that includes a mixture of housing, office, retail and/or other commercial development and amenities integrated into a walkable neighborhood and located within a half-mile of quality public transportation,” according to the Center for Transit-Oriented Development. 

The 2013 revised TOD ordinance can be used by developers if they have a project within 600 feet of a transit station or 1,200 feet from a transit station when the building is located along a pedestrian street or a pedestrian retail street. They can get parking requirement reduced by 50 to 100% as well as the Floor to Area (FAR) and number of dwelling unit requirements changed.



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