Megamansions in Lincoln Park

Today’s Trib has a cover package about the megamansions sprouting in Lincoln Park, roughly in the area between Old Town Triangle and Armitage & Halsted. I first noticed them this spring, when I detoured off Willow (a very pleasant east-west alternative to North) to check out a zoning variance sign. Rows of monster houses shoehorned onto standard city lots, many with hideous snout-house front-loaded garages, hiding in plain sight of two key historic districts. Why? Susan Chandler has the lowdown:

At first glance, it’s hard to see why Chicago’s most wealthy people have chosen this formerly nondescript area as their new enclave. It doesn’t have a lake view. It isn’t even that close to the lake. The houses were rundown. Many on Burling and Orchard were basically storefronts. But these drawbacks actually are what made the area a magnet for new development.

“Burling and Orchard had a bunch of stuff that was knock-down ready,” says Jay Metzler, a co-founder of Metzler/Hull Development Corp., a high-end builder that started building $1 million houses in Lincoln Park in the early 1990s.

Metzler/Hull built its first urban mansion home on Burling about 10 years ago. The widespread absence of alleys in the area was a positive, from the firm’s point of view.

“You could get these deep lots. You didn’t fill up the back of our lot with a 21-ft. garage. Your back yards became 40 to 50 feet deep. For Metzler/Hull, it was a business decision to offer something very unique: a house in the city with a nice big yard.”

Chicago’s arcane and archaic zoning system aided this kind of development. Burling and Orchard were zoned R5 under the old zoning code formulated in the 1950s. The “R” stands for residential and the 5 means that developers and builders could erect 2.2 square feet of structure for every 1 square foot of land, more than double what was allowed under the R3 rating of most of Chicago’s bungalow belt.

The R5 rating allowed a mix of three-flats and small apartment houses to grow up alongside single-family houses, generating more concentrated pockets of residents. It also was an invitation to teardowns, explains Joseph Schwieterman, a zoning expert at DePaul University and co-author of “The Politics of Place.” “The R5 districts were ravaged by new construction in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. In areas dominated by mansions and stately apartment buildings, you saw enormous demolition for much denser forms of development. Along the lakefront, the ambience was really lost,” says Schwieterman.

Unlike many suburbs, where teardowns are regulated, Chicago allows owners to combine lots and raze houses without zoning approval. The serial teardowns that hit Orchard and Burling also were helped by the fact that the homes weren’t protected by landmark designations and were cheaper than those a few streets over.

So, to review: it’s an overzoned little slice of “nice neighborhood, bad houses” right between two landmark districts. I repeat: this new Billionaires’ Row exists solely due to zoning. Gotcha.

Blair Kamin, in the sidebar, goes on the offensive:

I have no problem going after the mega-mansions that have invaded Burling, Orchard and Howe Streets south of Armitage Avenue. They’re not purely personal matters, like most houses. They’re turning what was a vibrant urban neighborhood into a collection of bloated, physically isolated, suburban-style manses…

[S]ome of the worst offenders on these streets are single-lot houses whose owners have draped them in all manner of frou-frou-columns, pilasters, balusters, even fake flickering gaslights-only to destroy their attempt at elegance with sunken garages reached via a curb cut and a steeply-sloped front driveway.

Yet warped style is just the beginning of what’s wrong here. The real damage these buildings do is to the public realm of the sidewalk and street. That’s where neighbor meets neighbor and neighborhoods really form, a fast-disappearing attitude… those sloping driveways, which, unlike the effect at Condron’s place, rid the street of the civilized buffer zones between the house and the sidewalk and substitute the equivalent of concrete moats. Not only are the driveways eyesores, they cut off the house from its surroundings. If you want to come over to borrow a cup of sugar, be sure to have the guard lower the drawbridge….

Many of these homeowners, it appears, contemplated living in Lake Forest, but couldn’t stand the hour-long commute. So they stuffed a suburban manse into the city.

As a result, the neighborhood feels crammed to the gills instead of offering true luxury, which is about the luxury of space as well as the luxury of size. How strange-and sad-that so many could spend so much and in doing so, still cheapen the public realm.