In My Back Yard

The text of I said at last week’s Landmarks Permit Review Committee hearing about the Association House development follows after the jump. No, I’m not overjoyed at losing a sunny view and neighboring open space, but the opposition’s vicious tactics and weak rationales have dismayed me:

  • They constantly decry the “high density,” even though the bulk exactly matches 1609 N. Hoyne, a building the WPC approved just two years ago, and countless other buildings up and down the street, and the dwelling unit density is lower than the block’s average.
  • They attack the height, although the roofline matches neighboring buildings’ rooflines and the set back fourth story will not be seen from the street.
  • They claim that there is a parking problem, yet I can always count a few open parking spaces on my block. Parking problems are like traffic: anyone who drives is part of the problem.
  • They say that the architecture is “bad” and that modern architecture has no place in a historic district — a notion that their often-bragged-about travels to Europe should have disabused them of. By that logic, the radical Prairie School lines of the current Association House had no place amongst the Victorians and should be demolished. The architects use historically appropriate materials, including face brick and copper-zinc roofs, and do not include any blank walls, contrary to what Michael Moran claimed in a Chicago Journal letter.
  • They claim that 34 votes at one meeting qualifies them to speak on behalf of 15,000 neighborhood residents, all while they loudly claim that others (including me) are “abusing” positions merely through self identification. (The Committee made it clear that they understood who was speaking on behalf of whom, and that I in particular spoke only for myself.)
  • They offer no solutions beyond attacking the developers, the architects, those of us trying to view this fairly, and the board of Association House — an institution which has served the residents of our community for a century, only to get a loud “thanks for nothing” when it, unlike the residents it serves, managed to eke out a profit from its displacement. They suggest alternate uses of large mansions, a park, or a school, although 1% of the block’s housing is single-family, a new city park is under construction a block away, and local K-8 students can choose between solid Pritzker, the new Drummond magnet, and two charter schools.

Anyways, here goes:

Thank you for the opportunity to speak today. I am an immediate neighbor of Association House; my sunny kitchen, where just this morning I was reading Preservation magazine, sits just eight feet from the property line.

The notion that the proposed development is out of scale for the Wicker Park neighborhood is based on an unnecessarily literal reading of the term “context.” By the letter of the law, the Landmarks commission evaluates proposed development within the context of the Landmark District, which in Wicker Park includes many blocks north and south of North Avenue, but less than half a block actually on North Avenue.

As it stands, the Cloisters (the building I live in) and the National Register-listed three- and four-story mixed-use buildings clustered around Milwaukee, North, and Damen (or lining North further west) were excluded from the landmark district, since the district sought the area’s 19th century character. Yet I believe that “large, high density,” and more recent (if 1890s-1920s can be called recent) buildings like the Cloister, the Flat Iron, etc. contribute just as much to our neighborhood’s urban character as the houses on Hoyne or Pierce.

More importantly, these larger buildings, not houses on the side streets, define the urban character along North Avenue — which, after all, is State Highway 64. For over a century, the prevailing character of development along North Avenue, as with other section-line streetcar arterials in Chicago, has been of three- to four-story buildings, which the site’s B3-2 zoning implicitly acknowledges. By the standard that Wittman has applied, every single building built since my great-grandfather’s time, including my own building and even the current Association House structure, has been woefully “out of character” and should never have been built.

The opponents have said that large single-family mansions would be more appropriate to the neighborhood context, but this block (my block) has 92 apartments and one single family house. Exactly six percent of units in the broader census tract are detached houses.

From a planning perspective, buildings around urban transit nodes should be of larger scale and higher density, since density sustains the urban services (like retail and transit) which make our neighborhood a convenient, urbane, diverse, and exciting place to live. The architects chosen for this proposal have skillfully created buildings that honor and enrich their surroundings by using traditional materials in modern ways.

Last, I find it profoundly undemocratic that thirty four self selected individuals, almost uniformly white and middle aged, can claim to have definitively spoken on behalf of a neighborhood with 15,000 residents.

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3 thoughts on “In My Back Yard

  1. Would you use a freestanding book to function as a bookend on your shelf, even if it did look like all the other books? No, because it has neither the bulk nor the traction to hold the rest of them up. What do these people think a commercial street is, if not the bookend of the neighborhood?

    I know you know this, and your argument approaches it from all relevant angles (by-right zoning, density to sustain services, true historical context of the street, etc.), but the inability of people to read cities is what is most discouraging to me. Chicago has never really grown into its grand frame and as such remains a lopsided city: larger-than-life intensity on the lakefront and downtown, but wide streets barely challenged by the building mass on either side of them. What the opposition proposes does not help it to grow, it causes the muscles to atrophy on the bone.

  2. Pingback: No open space in my backyard (2) « west north

  3. Pingback: Behold: a historic parking lot? | west north

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