LOGAN SQUARE — For more than a year, crews have been restoring the notoriously run-down Congress Theater as part of a grand rehab project that includes the construction of hotel rooms, retail shops and apartments.
But construction will come to a screeching halt if developer Michael Moyer doesn’t get zoning approval to build a 10-story residential tower next door.
After a tense meeting with the impacted neighborhood group and other residents Monday evening, an exhausted Moyer told Block Club Chicago that the $69 million rehab project depends on the money generated from the tower.
Moyer called the tower “integral” to the rehab project.
“Everything stops if this tower doesn’t get built,” he said.
The 117-unit tower is proposed for the vacant lot just north of the Congress along Rockwell Street. The project would be considered a transit-oriented development due to the nearby Blue Line station. Transit-oriented developments require fewer dedicated parking spots than traditional developments.
The tower has been a part of Moyer’s overall plan since 2016, when he filed a zoning application with the city. The details, first reported by Block Club Chicago, are what’s new.
As part of the proposal, 30 percent of the apartments — a mix of studios, one-bedrooms and two-bedrooms — would be set aside as affordable housing units — more than the city’s affordable requirements ordinance requires.
The affordable apartments would be divided into three tiers: One-third made available to people with an income level up to 50 percent of the area median income, one-third for people earning 60 percent of the area median income and one-third for people earning 80 percent of the area median income.
Currently, studios make up a little less than half of the unit mix and the rest is one- and two-bedroom apartments, though the mix could easily change as the project takes shape, according to the development team.
Hardly anyone who attended Monday night’s meeting had good things to say about the proposed tower.
Sally Hamann, member of Greather Goethe Neighborhood Association, said she is concerned families are being forced out of the neighborhood at “an astronomical rate.”
“While we’ve had a lot of redevelopment, they’re almost all very small studios. What we really need are two-, three- and four-bedroom units suitable for families that are being forced out in this neighborhood,” she said.
Hamnn also pointed out that when neighbors and then-Ald. Manny Flores crafted a Milwaukee Avenue Corridor plan in 2008, the plan called for the vacant lot to be transformed into a park.
“What happened to the green space? You all can toss it out?” she asked, visibly upset.
To which Moyer’s zoning attorney Rolando Acosta replied, “The city should’ve bought [the lot].”
Another member of the neighborhood group, Paul Christianson, called into question the neighborhood’s oversaturated rental market. In recent years, the stretch of Milwaukee Avenue that includes the Congress has seen an explosion of new luxury apartment buildings and Christianson fears another development won’t survive.
In response, Moyer said current market research supports this type of development, but more research will be done down the line as construction draws nearer.
Acosta said the tower wouldn’t be built for another two years. The development team intends to use the lot for construction staging while the Congress rehab project is underway.
“When you’re looking at the market, today is not relevant. What’s relevant is 2020 or 2021,” Acosta said.
In June, the city’s Community Development Commission unanimously approved allocating $9.7 million in tax-increment financing (TIF) funds toward the rehab project.
The development team is planning to take $800,000 in TIF funds generated by the tower and use it to subsidize the Congress rehab project, according to Acosta. The TIF money won’t be used to subsidize the construction of the tower, however, the attorney emphasized.
Saying the overall plan lacks parking, security measures and other elements that would set itself apart from the old Congress Theater, longtime resident Mary Escobar said she’s hesitant to lend her support.
Escobar has lived next to the Congress on Rockwell Street since 1969. Her brother and other family members have also called the block home for decades.
The 56-year-old said she’s having trouble shaking memories of the old Congress, which brought drunk concert-goers to her block who would routinely trash the area or pee on her lawn. Plus, the shows were so loud, she said, that her windows shook.
Escobar also vividly remembers the now-notorious attack of an 18-year-old suburban girl, who was raped in an alley next to the Congress after being refused entrance to a 2011 New Year’s Eve concert.
The girl ended up on her brother’s lawn, which is where neighbors and others called 911.
“That was a turning point for the neighborhood. We said, ‘Enough is enough,'” Escobar said.
For Escobar and other residents, it’s hard to support the tower if it’s inextricably linked to the rehab project.
“We’ve endured the ups and the downs of the neighborhood, and then they say, ‘We’re here to save you.’ They’re not saving us. They’re saving their pocketbooks,” she said.
Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) is expected to hold a community meeting on the proposed tower project in the coming weeks.
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