CITY HALL — After hearing testimony from neighbors in a bitter zoning dispute, the family of a 13-year-old girl who uses a wheelchair will be allowed to add a garage to their historic Old Town home, a city board ruled.
Homeowners Bill Deakin and Lisa Diehlmann bought a home built in 1891 in the 1800 block of North Lincoln Avenue — part of the Old Town Triangle Landmark District — and had planned to add a two-car attached garage to accommodate the needs of their daughter Ava Deakin, who uses a wheelchair. But their neighbors, some of who are members of the Old Town Triangle Association, have opposed the move, saying a street-level garage could damage the historical integrity of the area and would violate the district’s rules.
The city’s Zoning Board of Appeals unanimously voted to approve the family’s plan Friday night, the family’s zoning attorney Nick Ftikas confirmed.
Dozens of 13-year-old Ava Deakin’s eighth grade classmates filed into City Hall Friday to show support for the family. Ava Deakin also answered questions at the hearing.
The board recognized about 30 members of the crowd who were in support of the Deakins’ proposal. Several members of the Old Town Triangle Association — the group that opposed the family’s garage plan — were also present with their attorney.
Blake Sercye, chairman of the zoning board, said before the board ruling that a decision would not be based solely on community support.
“If there is one thing this board doesn’t care about, it is being popular,” he said. “This is about the zoning codes.”
Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), who has remained neutral in the dispute, said she understood both sides.
“Old Town rightfully values and protects its irreplaceable neighborhood character. And who can not have sympathy and support for a family trying to accommodate the special needs of a child?” she testified to the board.
Smith said the Department of Buildings was to blame for the confusion and untimely delays.
“Unfortunately, a series of misunderstandings initially by the city department of buildings created a conflict that caught the community unaware,” she said.
In a letter, Amanda Betts, daughter of Dr. Henry Betts, a physician who lived in the Old Town Triangle that championed disabled rights and helped establish many accommodations for disabled people, said if her father were alive today, he would have supported the family’s plan. Her mother still lives in the neighborhood, she said.
Amanda Betts called the Old Town Triangle Association’s opposition “abhorrent.”
“The vitriol and exclusionary attitude of some of the members of the Old Town Triangle is the antithesis of what we Chicagoans hold dear and it is a sad testament to [society’s] belief that the disabled are not deserving of the same rights and dignity as anyone else,” she said.
“Had what has been said about the [Deakins] been about a family of another race or religion someone surely would have done so, so I question why anyone has given credence to this hatefulness.”
A represent from Access Living, a nonprofit that furthers the interests of people with disabilities, called the opposition “NIMBYism at its finest.”
Howard Stolar, a neighbor who has lived on the block for more than 25 years, spoke in support of the family’s garage project, saying the improvements were well within the character of the neighborhood.
“That property has been the scourge of the neighborhood for 25 years,” said Stolar, an interior designer.
An attorney for the Old Town group and other neighbors urged the board to rule against the family’s plan Friday.
Amy Kurson, the attorney representing the Old Town Triangle Association, said that testimony from supporters should not “tug at the board’s heartstrings.” It’s the board’s job to make a decision within the scope of zoning law, she argued.
Kurson questioned if adding a garage would “substantially increase the value of the property.”
“The OTTA is asking you to dig deeper,” Kurson said. “Not only about the facts of the case but the motivations.”
Under the family’s plan, the street-level garage for the Lincoln Avenue home would face out to North Lincoln Park West, a street lined with homes and buildings. The garage would be set back 10 feet from the street and would reuse an existing 14-foot curb cut on the property, according to Ftikas.
Dianne Gonzalez, historian for Old Town Triangle Association, said that the “garage design is absolutely inconsistent with the character of the neighborhood.”
“This is one of the most significant blocks in our district,” she said. “And there are no front-facing garages.”
Alan Lougee, another member of the group, said that the garage is not an Americans with Disabilities Act-related issue.
“It is a shelter over your head,” he said. “You can accommodate needs with a ramp.”
Karen Pfendler, a neighbor who has lived in the area for most of her life, also opposed the project.
“Living without a garage is not a hardship,” she said.
Another speaker in opposition argued that the design proposed by the Deakins was “not ADA accessible.” In fact, she said that the slope of the driveway would make accessibility difficult for their daughter in a wheelchair.
After hearing testimony, Sercye asked for clarification regarding accusations that the design would not be accessible to Ava Deakin.
John DeSalvo, the family’s architect, said that there was no truth to the allegations and argued the house designs were acceptable by Chicago code.
“The historic district does not prevent front-facing garages,” said Ftikas, the Deakins’ zoning attorney. “Some of the objectors may not want a garage, but that is very different. The Deakins need a garage.”
In November, the board’s chairman ended up continuing the case with the hopes that both the Old Town Triangle Association and the family could compromise. Despite more conversations, the two groups were unable to reach a consensus.
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