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‘Don’t Keep Playing With My Ward’: Aldermen Clash Over Affordable Housing In Controversial North Side Plan

Ald. Tom Tunney said there should be more affordable units in a project in Ald. Walter Burnett's ward. Burnett told him to mind his own business.

Ald. Walter Burnett, left, and Ald. Tom Tunney clashed at a Thursday meeting.
Stephanie Lulay/Block Club Chicago/ DNAinfo
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CITY HALL — Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th) and Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) clashed Thursday over whether a new tower at the Atrium Village apartment complex contains enough units for low- and moderate-income Chicagoans.

The proposal from developer Onni Group is to build a 41-story, 456-unit tower near Wells and Division streets.

Credit: City of Chicago
A rendering of the proposed tower.

The project will move forward to the City Council’s Zoning Committee with no recommendation, as six commissioners at Thursday’s Plan Commission meeting voted to reject the proposal, and six voted to endorse the plan to rezone the site to allow for it.

The third and final tower will include 46 units set aside for low- and moderate-income residents, and pay $2.78 million into the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund for permission to build more units than allowed under the current rules, officials said.

The project’s first phase included a 32-story tower. Its second tower is set to be 39 stories. In all, the development will feature 1,500 units — including a total of 300 affordable units. 

However, 211 of those units will be in an existing 1970s-era nine-story building, not in one of the three new towers.

City law requires 10 percent of the 1,293 new units — 130 — to be set aside for low- and moderate-income residents, said Peter Strazzabosco, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Planning and Development.

Tunney, who faces a tough fight to win re-election to his seat representing Lakeview, said that was not sufficient — even though the proposal has Burnett’s support. The development is in Burnett’s 27th Ward.

“That does not impress me,” Tunney said, adding that a new stop on the CTA Brown Line should be built to serve its residents.

Burnett said he agreed that a new CTA station was needed, and said that one was not built decades ago because city leaders did not want residents of public housing — who were primarily black and Latino — riding with more affluent residents.

However, Burnett said he had worked hard to make the project as inclusive as possible.

“We do the best we can with what we have,” Burnett said.

Representatives of the Chicago Housing Initiative and members of the Atrium Village Tenant Association urged the commission to delay a vote and direct the developer to add more affordable housing.

In February, the tenant association sued the city and the developer, alleging the development violated federal fair housing laws.

That suit was settled in September. The proposal includes the terms of the agreement that ended the litigation, Department of Planning and Development Commissioner David Reifman said.

When Onni Group purchased the Atrium Village complex, the firm signed a covenant that vowed to maintain all of the affordable housing units. The tenants association and the Chicago Housing Initiative said the current proposal violates that agreement.

However, Tunney said the “spirit is violated” of the covenant by the current proposal.

The city is not bound by that covenant, Reifman said.

When Tunney suggested that the matter be deferred to allow the developer to find the “right mix [of affordable housing] in the right building,” Burnett reacted with anger.

“I know you are running for office, but don’t keep playing with my ward,” Burnett said, his voice rising in anger. “This is my ward. You are stepping too far. Don’t get involved in this.”

Aldermen have long held nearly unchecked power to block or approve projects in their own wards. It is unusual for an alderman to oppose a proposal outside his or her own ward supported by that ward’s alderman.

That unwritten rule has been criticized for allowing aldermen to keep affordable housing projects out of their wards entirely or limiting their size.

Related: As Mayor Focuses On Affordable Housing, Aldermen, Housing Advocates Propose Limiting Aldermanic Prerogative

Tunney attempted to express his “respect” for Burnett, but was cut off.

Because the proposal is in his ward, Burnett was required to recuse himself from the vote. Along with Tunney, Commissioners Gary Gardner, Fran Grossman, Sarah Lyons, Smita Shah and Linda Searl voted to reject the proposal.

It could be considered by the Zoning Committee on Jan. 17.