The Six Corners Developments, Portage Park
At virtually the same time the “5150” project for an unwanted seven-story 75-unit housing complex for low-income renters was speeding towards approval in Gladstone Park, developers were salivating over three major parcels of land that were coming up for grabs within spitting distance of each other at Six Corners in Portage Park. At the intersection of Milwaukee Avenue, Cicero Avenue, and Irving Park Road, it was less than two miles south of Gladstone Park. Interestingly, although Portage Port residents expressed concern over the parking, congestion, and density of the proposed developments, wanting to get it right, they were as a whole much more supportive of the plans than the builder might have encountered two miles north. Perhaps that was because Six Corners had traditionally been a hub for large retail, restaurant, and office buildings that had fallen on hard times. So it wasn’t anything new, but a development in need of restoration. The crux was how much expansion of its role would be considered acceptable growth.
Why should Gladstone Park residents concern itself with commercial real estate development in other Far Northwest Side communities? The reasons are many. Not only does it attune them to what developers want to build nearby, but also it informs them how willing builders are to compromise to get it. Too, by becoming witness to the positions the Mayor, the Chicago City Council and housing advocacy groups have taken on various proposals, nearby communities get a “heads up” on what they are up against. Knowledge of legal requirements and trends paves the way for better preparation for what could further come Gladstone Park’s way. Communities can then develop the best possible tools to help them to react to and negotiate their own positions with strength.
The Six Corners developments stand out as 1-for-1 replacements for large pre-existing retail concerns, the likes of which Gladstone Park does not have. The difference is that the commercial entities are part of a mixed-use project that includes apartment complexes that bring new residents into Portage Park, making them a cause for debate. With Six Corners in the same 45th ward as Gladstone Park, what goes on there allows the local community to more effectively gauge just how completely the alderman they share will represent their development interests on the 50-member City Council.
The first proposal was presented in 2018 for a $120 million 10-story senior housing complex on the former three-acre Bank of America site, 4747 W. Irving Park. The 265 luxury, market rate units were to rent for $4,400 to $7,200 a month, according to an August 16, 2018 Chicago magazine article by Robert Reed. An Aldi grocery store would be part of the development.
Reaction was overwhelmingly negative from the get-go, according to the magazine. Residents alleged that an upscale senior complex that nobody who lived in the neighborhood could afford was the classic example of gentrification. They also said replacing their traditional shopping district with senior apartments would start the process of making it into a “ghost town,” destroying the soul of their community. However, to the horror of the surrounding neighborhood, the proposal had the full support of their representative, former Ald. John Arena (45th).
Soon after Arena had presented himself as development-friendly and willing to defy all zoning codes to promote large affordable housing complexes that didn’t fit the character of their surrounding communities, he was voted out of office in February, 2019. Newly-installed Ald. Jim Gardiner quickly declared his disapproval for the senior housing project, saying it did not conform to the 2013 Six Corners Master Plan that recommended buildings of no more than four or five stories, according to a Nadig Newspapers December 18, 2019 article. Gardiner further stated that approving an exception for the application would set a legal precedent whereby proposals for other 10-story buildings could not be denied. However, by then it was too late and building plans were approved. The Clarendale Six Corners began construction with a fall, 2022 completion date.
Ryan Companies rendering of the 10-story luxury senior housing complex currently being built on the former three-acre Bank of America site, 4747 W. Irving Park Avenue at Six Corners just over a mile south of Jefferson Park. This view shows the full elevation of the building along N. Milwaukee Avenue, making it the subject of much controversy for a height that surpassed the Six Corners Master Plan’s recommended maximum of four or five stories. Neighbors also suggested that an upscale senior complex located in their community with apartments renting for $4,400 to $7,200 a month that nobody living in the area could afford was gentrification at its worst. Others intimated that replacing their shopping district’s commercial buildings with apartments of any kind would start the process of making the area into a “ghost town.” The complex, marketed as Clarendale Six Corners, is slated to be completed by Fall, 2022.
Trying to put the best spin on the 10-story luxury senior housing complex in his May 12, 2022 online aldermanic newsletter, Gardiner touted the Clarendale’s construction as creating 650 union jobs, 200 permanent jobs, and the expectation for $40 million in property taxes [over a 20-year period].
In June, 2022, Clarendale Six Corners released details on the 258 apartments that include 114 independent living units, 98 assisted living units and 46 for memory care. Applicants can earn no more than 60 percent of the annual area medium income ($43,800 for one person households (or $50,040 for two) to qualify for the 11 affordable units included in the building that will rent for monthly rates of $1,173 to $1,407, a significant reduction off the $4,400 retail cost. With the inevitable delays, the first resident didn’t move in until August, 2023.
While the first proposal for senior luxury apartments was still being considered, plans arose in 2019 to demolish the former Sears Department Store at 4730 W. Irving Park Road across the street from them in order to build a combination retail/housing complex with 421 apartments, as recounted in the same Nadig article. A portion of the department store building built in 1938 was to be saved for ground level retail space with 133 apartments built as upper stories. On the northern end of the block-sized parcel would be a new 10-story complex with another 288 apartments and a 600-car parking garage. In order to sweeten the deal for a pro-affordable-housing City Council, the developer offered to designate 10 percent of the units for low-income households.
In response to community objections and the lack of Ald. Gardiner’s support, the Sears project was whittled down. New plans called for the historic building to be redeveloped with 50,000 square feet of retail space (later reported to be a Target) with 207 luxury apartments in six stories supplemented by communal areas, pool, and 270 parking spaces. The developer agreed to pay about $2 million into the city’s Affordable Housing Opportunity Fund so it could limit the number of units set aside for low-income applicants to six, according to Block Club Chicago.
While not entirely happy with the project, the $90 million redevelopment proposal got the support of the Old Irving Park and Six Corners Associations as well as the Six Corners Chamber of Commerce even as a raging debate over its affordable housing provisions went on for months in the City Council.
Testifying before the August 26, 2021 Chicago Plan Commission, Neighbors for Affordable Housing alleged the Sears redevelopment approvals were being rushed through so that Novak Construction could avoid more stringent requirements that would kick in October 1 requiring 20 on-site units designated for low income applicants, according to an August 26, 2021 Nadig Newspapers article. Nevertheless, the 50-member City Council approved the plans in September with only three aldermen voting no based on the low number of affordable housing units.
Novak Construction announced in February, 2023 that it would start leasing the second floor of its 206 studio, 1- and 2-bedroom apartments at 4714 W. Irving Park Road in October. The company took advantage of the 16-foot ceilings to add 100-square foot lofts in the units accessible with ladders for use as offices or extra bedrooms. The units range from 461 to 1,000 square feet and will be priced at $1600 to $2600 monthly with lower costs for the six affordable units. The newly-renovated building is being marketed as “Six Corners Lofts.”
Rendering of Novak Construction’s combined retail/housing complex on the former Sears department store site, 4730 W. Irving Park Road, across the streets from the bank site on which the 10-story Clarendale Six Corners luxury senior housing complex had already been approved. Part of the front of the 1938 store is to be repurposed for 50,000 square feet of ground level retail space with 133 luxury apartments in six stories above with a rooftop pool. Also planned are 270 parking places. Despite politicians bickering for months about the lack of affordable housing in the project, the developer ultimately paid $2 million into the Affordable Housing Opportunity Fund and designated only six units for low-income applicants. Affordable housing advocates testified August 26, 2021 that the proposal was being rushed through City Council so the developer could avoid stricter measures that would kick in October 1 requiring 20 on-site units for low-income households. Nevertheless, the City Council approved the project with three aldermen opposed due to the low number of affordable apartments.
In April, 2021 plans were presented for “Shops at Six Corners” on the six-acre former Peoples Gas facility, 3955 Kilpatrick Avenue just west of the Six Corners intersection of N. Milwaukee, N. Cicero and W. Irving Park. Initially there were to be 10-14 commercial tenants anchored by a 40,000 square foot Amazon Fresh grocery store, a Panera Bread restaurant with drive-through and a Burlington coat/clothing store, according to an April 12, 2021 Nadig Newspapers article. The largest tenants would have second floors for retail or office space as well as a third floor parking garage with 281 additional spaces to supplement the 340 parking slots on the ground level. This proposal replaced a previous one that had been rejected by the Chicago Department of Planning and Development as “auto-centric” with virtually every inch of the lot paved over for 834 surface parking spaces, according to StreetsBlogChicago.
The location for the shops (roughly across the street from Marshalls and Famous Footwear Stores and near an existing Jewel-Osco grocery store) was regarded as not out of character for the community. But nearby single-family homeowners were shocked seven months later to find the developer, GW Properties, had acquired an adjacent plot of land on which it wanted to annex a 110-unit apartment building, according to an October 14, 2021 Block Club Chicago article.
Rendering of GW Properties’ proposed Shops at Six Corners on the six-acre former Peoples Gas facility, 3955 Kilpatrick Avenue just west of the Six Corners intersection of N. Milwaukee, N. Cicero, and W. Irving Park. The original plan was for paving the entire lot with 834 parking spaces, which was rejected by the Chicago Department of Planning and Development for its “auto-centric” design. The revised proposal called for 10-14 commercial tenants anchored by a 40,000 Amazon Fresh grocery store, a Burlington clothing store, and a Panera Bread Restaurant with second floor offices and a third floor parking garage of 281 spaces to supplement the 340 ground level slots. In October, 2021, the developer announced the acquisition of adjacent property with plans to build 110 apartments as part of the project. The aerial view clearly shows the neighborhood of modest single-family houses in Portage Park upon which the Shops at Six Corners would abut.
By the fall of 2023, the GW Properties’ proposal for the mixed-used development has changed to a five-building complex that differed most in more than tripling the number of residential units over the initial proposal. Taking advantage of the city’s Connected Communities program that encourages walking, biking and the use public transit—reducing tenant parking while offering affordable housing—the developer presented plans for 348 (later 354) high-end studio, one-, two-, and three-bedroom units in a sprawling four-and-a-half story building. There would also be some two-story duplex units.
Aerial rendering of GW Properties’ revised proposal for the former People’s Gas property includes four one-story retail buildings for 10-12 businesses with 125 parking spaces, primarily along Irving Park Road. The sprawling apartment complex in the back, which is more than triple the size of the initial plan, would offer 354 high-end studio, one-, two-, and three-bedroom units as well as some two-story duplex units and a 205-car parking garage on the ground level. The new plan was largely well-received by Portage Park residents at a public meeting held by the developers at the Copernicus Center in September, 2023. Courtesy of Block Club Chicago https://blockclubchicago.org/2023/09/21/once-hated-100-million-development-near-six-corners-gets-overhauled-wins-over-neighbors/
The new proposal also includes four independent one-story retail buildings for 10-12 businesses mainly fronting off Irving Park Road. About 125 parking spaces would be reserved for the retail area. The apartment complex would include a 205-car parking garage on the ground floor and sport amenities such as a pool and grilling area, fitness center, and a co-working room.
While city rules require 20% of the residential units of large apartment complexes to be designated affordable (reserved for residents earning 60% or less than the median income in the local area), it is unknown whether the developer will use his option to pay a penalty to partially buy out of the requirement. The entire project needs a zoning change from RS-3 Residential Single-Unit to a B2-3 Neighborhood Mixed-Use District in order to be approved.
Except for minor concerns about traffic problems, what Block Club Chicago called the “once-hated $100 million development” largely won over the neighborhood when the proposal was presented to the public in its overhauled state at the Copernicus Center September, 2023.
The flurry of activity continued with plans revealed in September, 2020 for Northwestern Medical Group to construct a $150 million five-story building of 140,000 square feet with 367 parking spaces at 441 W. Irving Park Road, according to a September 4, 2020 Nadig Newspapers article. On the site of a former restaurant and funeral home just over the border into Irving Park, the location is less than a half-mile east of Six Corners.
Irving Park neighbors strenuously objected on two main grounds. One, the proposed five-story facility, at 69 feet, would become the tallest building in their community of single-family homes and two, the estimated 2,600 daily automobile trips the facility would attract would provoke traffic congestion on local streets. In response, Northwestern came back in February, 2021 with a revised plan for a four-story building with below ground parking for 350 cars that would add $7 million to construction costs, according to a February 5, 2021 article by Block Club Chicago. Still, resident bitterly complained that Northwestern should have located its too-large facility at Six Corners where the other big buildings such as the 10-story Clarendale senior living complex was slated to be built.
Like many feared development projects, community opinion has started to shift in the Six Corners area as projects have materialized in what some thought of as a blighted area reeling from the loss of its once vibrant business activity. Although there are still calls for more affordable housing, most residents are pleased that the flurry of activity is attracting new restaurants such as an independent coffee house, a hot dog eatery and an ice cream shop as well as retail stores.
Through public meetings and the help of local aldermen, Portage Park residents played a large role in bringing about revisions to building proposals that they thought didn’t, at first, suit their neighborhood. All told, the new developments as they turned out have been well-received, largely seen as a positive restoration of what used to be as well as what could be improved upon for the future. The Six Corners Chamber of Commerce (SCCC) credits the already-completed $130 million Clarendale Six Corners project, the $150 million Northwestern Outpatient Center, and the $90 million “Sears Mixed-Use Development” with a complete revitalization of its Milwaukee Avenue Dining and Entertainment District, calling it a “Small Store Front Revolution.”
SCCC is actively offering $40 monthly parking passes for the public lot at 4040 Laporte Avenue to encourage visitors to come and avail itself of Six Corners’ offerings. It is running a fund-raising drive to add street furniture. But all isn’t hunky-dory. The City Council tossed out the local Chamber as the Special Service Area (SSA) Provider overseeing the specially-assessed tax dollars to manage as Portage Park’s main shopping district over allegations of mismanagement in December, 2022. As reported by Block Club Chicago, the Belmont-Central Chamber of Commerce is now stepping in as an interim SSA provider managing the hosting of communal events, the mounting of holiday decorations, the removal of litter and snow, and the landscaping of public planters.
Does the successful experience Portage Park has had with its Six Corners developments just two miles south provide a blueprint for what Gladstone Park could or should do? Up until now, Gladstone Parkers haven’t wanted to surrender their unique low-rise character for residential buildings over three stories tall as in the Six Corners complexes. They haven’t looked at favor at Chicago’s special districts with reduced parking requirements because they so treasure their no-parking-meter mecca. Which doesn’t mean that Gladstone Park is against development; it’s not. It just recognizes that each neighborhood has its own special character and that there’s a delicate balance to finding what smart development is in each. Which means we have to continually assess and reassess where we are and where we want to be in the future.
GlenStar Housing Project and Break with Aldermanic Prerogative
When GlenStar Properties came into the O’Hare neighborhood in 2015, the luxury apartment developer initially proposed building an office complex on a 10-acre site currently being used as a large parking lot at 8535 W. Higgins Road. Adjacent to the Kennedy Expressway, the large commercial tract surrounding it had been zoned for office development and was already home to a cluster of hotels and other office buildings.
Then began a long odyssey of twists and turns that, when the case was resolved six years later, polarized the entire city and its neighborhoods while setting several precedents. First, it singled out the Northwest Side as ground zero in the battle for using affordable housing as the tool to end the whole city’s deplorable record on segregation. Second, it overturned the unwritten Chicago tradition of aldermanic prerogative that for over 100 years had allowed wards to make key decisions about their own future growth apart from the city’s wishes. Third, it rewrote the whole playbook for developers willing to incorporate affordable (i.e., low-income) housing in their projects in exchange for approvals for controversial projects needing zoning changes to which local communities were objecting.
The controversy began when the developer decided to switch plans and apply for a zoning variance to build a 297-unit market-rate apartment complex on property set aside for office and hotel construction. Sandwiched between large sections of single-family residential housing just east of Forest Preserves of Cook County parkland, the tract is located about four miles east of O’Hare International Airport and about three miles directly west of Gladstone Park on the Far Northwest Side.
Although O’Hare’s Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st) had originally been in favor of the proposal, he began hearing rumblings from constituents who contended the seven-story housing complex with its 270 parking spaces would bring in unwanted traffic and overcrowd schools due to its density. After observing what was going down between warring residents and a sparring city over the 5150 affordable housing project in nearby Jefferson Park, he withdrew his support, according to Maya Dukmasova’s June 26, 2018 Chicago Reader blog.
In a six year long odyssey, GlenStar’s application was repeatedly denied. In January, 2018, City Council Zoning Committee members tabled the building proposal after fellow Ald. Napolitano restated his objections that the development was inappropriate for his ward. GlenStar sued. With the lawsuit forcing its hand, the Zoning Committee brought the development plan to a vote that June, but again rejected the plan with a 7-5 margin.
Having a change of heart, GlenStar dropped the suit in 2019 and stated its intentions to go back to its original plans to build an office complex, a conforming use for the property that did not require a variance.
The proposed seven-story 297-unit GlenStar apartment complex, 8535 W Higgins Road in the O’Hare neighborhood on the Far Northwest Side. Rendering by GlenStar.
Then the developer did another about face and came back with the original apartment complex proposal, applying for a remarkable third time. This time, though, the developer included plans to comply with the city’s affordable housing laws that required setting aside 10 percent of the units for low-income households, as per the May 24, 2021 Nadig Newspapers. This would be instead of taking the $125,000 buy-out option for each affordable unit so the developer could maintain all apartments at market rate.
The City Council Zoning Committee, upholding Ald. Napolitano’s aldermanic prerogative to overrule the project, tabled the new plan by a vote of 11-2, according to a June 6, 2021 report by WTTW News.
Suddenly the narrative changed into one of affordable housing and all hell broke loose. Housing advocates railed against the Northwest Side in general, alleging its communities were only objecting to the project so they could maintain segregation. Progressives, inflaming tensions further, accused the traditionally white neighborhoods 10 miles northwest of the center city of out-and-out racism. Former Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who’d made both affordable housing and ending aldermanic prerogative the cornerstones of her administration, vowed the time had come to implement both together.
The ugly accusations silenced the O’Hare neighborhood’s protests against the building’s scale and sent chills down the backs of other Northwest Side communities. The project had never been about affordable housing, according to Ald. Napolitano, who tried to remind everyone that GlenStar’s original plans were to take the city’s buy-out option so 100 percent of the units would be market rate, according to the same May 24, 2021 Nadig Newspapers article. He went on to allege it was only when the company couldn’t get its project approved that it agreed to build the subsidized units to gain the support of affordable housing advocates to shove it through.
The outcry worked and reversed GlenStar’s fortunes. In an unprecedented move, the City Council greenlighted the 297-unit apartment building with an increase of affordable units to 59, even though the project was opposed by the community and its representative, 41st Ward Ald. Anthony Napolitano, according to an article in the December 14, 2021 The Chicago Tribune. By repudiating his aldermanic prerogative, the action stripped Napolitano’s power to regulate growth in his own ward. Worst, it endangered the privilege all 50 aldermen on the City Council had previously had to make critical decisions that were right for their own constituents despite what the city might have wanted.
The next day Mayor Lightfoot claimed victory for the whole city, calling the vote for the Northwest Side affordable housing project a win against the “grip of segregation” in the December 15, 2021 The Chicago Tribune. That sentiment was reiterated in a December 16, 2021 editorial in The Chicago Tribune that maintained the Glenstar housing project is “exactly the kind of approach Chicago should have” in the “white neighborhoods” on the Far Northwest Side.
On May 10, 2022 The Real Deal, Chicago’s Real Estate News published an online photo of Ald. Napolitano online, blocking out his mouth in a gesture of censorship. Its attached article crowed that GlenStar Properties had not only won approval for the controversial project, but also had “scored” a $23.5 million tax break after agreeing that 20 percent of the 297 units would be set aside for affordable housing for 30 years. (The tax ordinance provision had been set up by Lightfoot as a way to provide incentives for developers to include affordable housing in their projects.)
Meanwhile, Ald. Napolitano warned the 49 other aldermen of the City Council that their approval of the GlenStar project against the wishes of him as his community’s representative meant that their constituents’ voices wouldn’t be heard either. Having earlier signed an executive order aimed at curbing aldermanic prerogative, Mayor Lightfoot was quoted in the same Real Deal online piece as putting a lid on the dispute by replying, “This is a time to not just think about your own interests; its time to think about the city’s interests.”
We do not yet know the end of this story. Some six months after Ald. Napolitano had the power to decide zoning issues in his ward taken from him, Lightfoot’s office issued a statement for The Chicago Tribune saying it would continue working to “undo the old Chicago way of doing business,” revoking aldermanic privilege as “one of the last tools alderman have to block affordable housing in their communities.”
However, pushback may come sooner rather than later. One of Lightfoot’s supposed allies, Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) said in the same article, “To me, aldermanic prerogative really means community input. I think when aldermen reflect the wishes of their communities, they’re expressing the prerogative of their community.” Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), another ally, added that “constituents want their local elected official to have [the prerogative of decision-making powers for their communities] versus a department or a bureaucrat down at City Hall.”
Ironically, two years after GlenStar’s long-planned housing project at 8535 W. Higgins Road had been okayed by the City Council over a controversial and unprecedented break in aldermanic prerogative, city Department of Housing spokesperson Rima Alsammarae revealed that the developer had put construction on hold. Block Club Chicago broke the story in April, 2023, citing GlenStar’s decision to delay as a response to a slower national housing market complicated by unfavorable financial conditions. Meanwhile the Chicago Tribune, which had repeatedly taken statements the community had made about the complex’s 90-foot height and seven-stories being out-of-character for their area and turned them into allegations of racism thanks to an ugly campaign run by housing advocates seeking every advantage to obtain approval, gave the construction halt all of two sentences. If we could read through the lines, it appears as if the 2021 ordinance, specifically passed by the City Council in order to grant low income tax credits for builders such as GlenStar to create greater numbers of affordable housing units in low-affordability neighborhoods such as O’Hare, apparently won’t do the trick. According to a previous statement made by Liz Butler, the project’s former zoning attorney, the $23.5 million in tax relief GlenStar would be getting over 30 years in exchange for excluding 59 of the 297 units of its apartments from market rates, wouldn’t come close to paying for the $52 million it would actually cost to provide for the units over the same time period. The whole debacle begs one to ask whether encouraging developers to foist apartment monstrosities that don’t fit into the fabric of Chicago’s low- and mid-rise communities by issuing rewards in the form of building variances and huge-but-not-huge-enough exemptions in tax relief for setting aside 20% of the housing units for low-income residents is a viable way to treat the the city’s neighborhoods as well as solve the housing affordability crisis.