DEVELOPMENT THREATS TO NEARBY NEIGHBORHOODS
The Six Corners Developments, Portage Park
At virtually the same time the “5150” project 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 2 miles south of Gladstone Park.
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 in their backyards, but also it informs them how willing builders are to compromise to get it. Too, by becoming witness to the positions Mayor Lori Lightfoot, 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.
Although the Six Corners developments are different in that most of the proposed buildings would replace large pre-existing retail concerns, the likes of which Gladstone Park does not have, the inclusion of new apartment complexes in the mixed-use projects makes them relevant to the local community. Furthermore, Six Corners is in the same 45th ward as Gladstone Park, allowing the community to more effectively gauge just how completely the alderman they share will represent their 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 and is 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.
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.”
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.
Although the proposed retail location (roughly across the street from Marshalls and Famous Footwear Stores and near an existing Jewel-Osco grocery store) was not found to be out of character for the location, the community of nearby single-family homes was shocked when the developer announced the acquisition of an adjacent plot of land that October with the proposal to add a 36-apartment building for a total of 110 units as part of the project, according to an October 14, 2021 Block Club Chicago article.
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.
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.
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. 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.”