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Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Avondale

Alderman Who Cashed In On 606 Boom Blocks New Development Near Trail, And One Property Owner Is Fighting Back

The property owner said Ald. Maldonado has blocked him at every turn, limiting what he can build on the site: "This is the quintessential example of aldermanic privilege being abused."

Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th) aims to rezone more than a dozen properties, including a vacant lot at 1300 N. Maplewood Ave. (pictured), to curb gentrification along The 606's Bloomingdale Trail.
Mina Bloom/Block Club Chicago; GoogleMaps
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HUMBOLDT PARK — A first-time real estate investor who believes Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th) is unfairly trying to block him from redeveloping a vacant lot in gentrifying Humboldt Park isn’t going down without a fight.

Last year, attorney Chethan Shetty bought a vacant lot at 1300 N. Maplewood Ave., about four blocks from The 606’s Bloomingdale Trail, for $260,000 with the intention of building either a small market-rate condo building or a single-family home on the site.

But Shetty contends Maldonado, who has personally profited off of the gentrification along the trail, has blocked him at every turn — first by insisting he include affordable housing units and second by trying to change the site’s zoning to the lowest possible designation. Crain’s was first to report on the issue.

Maldonado, who didn’t respond to Block Club’s multiple requests for comment, told Crain’s he’s trying to rezone Shetty’s property — and more than a dozen other nearby properties — in an effort to curb gentrification along the trail, and that he isn’t targeting Shetty alone. The move aims to “force developers to the table” so they’ll include more affordable housing in their projects, he said in an interview with Crain’s.

“The intention is not to be punitive,” Maldonado said.

But Shetty doesn’t see it that way. The attorney and first-time real estate investor said what the alderman is doing is “flat out wrong.”

“This is the quintessential example of aldermanic privilege being abused,” Shetty told Block Club.

Last year, after Shetty bought the lot, he asked Maldonado for a zoning change that would allow for a denser development — he aimed to build three condo units or a single-family home on site. Maldonado essentially said no, not unless you’re committed to including affordable housing, so Shetty dropped the project for a while. Shetty said he couldn’t make affordable housing units work financially.

“I’m not a developer. That was going to take the skill for this project a little bit outside of my comfort level,” Shetty said.

Then, months later, Maldonado moved to formally block Shetty’s project by introducing an ordinance that would rezone Shetty’s property and other nearby properties.

In early July, Shetty filed a formal objection in City Council. The objection triggers a higher threshold for votes, meaning Maldonado’s proposal now needs 34 and not just 25 votes to pass.

Maldonado’s proposed rezoning of Shetty’s property and other nearby properties — 831 N. Mozart Ave., 1738 N. Spaulding Ave. and 1749 N. Spaulding Ave. — already cleared one hurdle by winning approval from the city’s Committee on Zoning on June 25. But the measures still need approval from the full City Council to go into effect. It’s unclear if the measures will go up for a vote at Wednesday’s City Council meeting, though it doesn’t seem likely.

Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), the council’s zoning chairman, told The Daily Line that he wasn’t sure he’d call the measures for a vote because Mayor Lori Lightfoot is currently looking at ways to root out aldermanic privilege, the unwritten rule that allows aldermen to have the final say over development in their wards.

“A more holistic plan would make some sense,” Tunney told The Daily Line.

Maldonado is also looking to rezone another set of nearby properties — 1713 N. Harding Ave., 1639 N. Kimball Ave., 1702 N. Monticello Ave. and 1615-17 N. Monticello Ave. — but that proposal has not advanced. The city’s Committee on Zoning on Tuesday deferred the vote on the proposal.

All of the ordinances, if approved, would change each property’s zoning from RS-3, which allows for the construction of a single-family home or two-flat offering no more than 2,800 square feet of space to RS-1, the lowest possible zoning designation, which only allows for a 1,578-square-foot single-family home.

Shetty said the square footage Maldonado wants to see doesn’t work for him and his family.

“If I wanted to build a house for my wife and daughter, under the [proposed] zoning, I can only build a 1,600-square-foot house. That’s smaller than the home we live in now. That’s smaller than a lot of condos in the city,” Shetty said.

Shetty currently lives in a townhouse several blocks north of his investment property. He said he bought the investment property thinking either his own family or another family could enjoy it.

“I’m not a real estate investor. I’m a normal person. I thought it would be a good opportunity to invest in an area I like,” Shetty said.

Shetty said he believes Maldonado’s rezoning will have the opposite of the desired effect.

“What Alderman Maldonado wants to do is encourage affordable housing. What he’s actually doing is ensuring [the property will] never be developed,” he said.

Shetty also takes issue with Maldonado for personally profiting off of the soaring property values along The 606. The alderman himself sold four properties along the trail and pocketed a $300,000 profit in 2015, DNAinfo Chicago reported.

Maldonado bought three of the four properties — then vacant lots — in the 1990s for a total of $50,000. In 2006, he bought the fourth lot for $150,000 and demolished a small house on the site.

Maldonado’s plan was to flip the properties for a profit.

“Originally I purchased them to sell them, but when I was ready to sell them the market plummeted and I couldn’t sell them,” he told the Reader in 2009, the year he was appointed to the City Council by former Mayor Richard M. Daley. “So I was going to partner with an experienced developer to develop them.”

Maldonado defended the move to Crain’s, saying, “Nobody knew when we bought the property how [popular] the area would become.”

Maldonado also said it’s the buyer of his properties who’s responsible for changing the zoning from manufacturing to residential, which made the properties more valuable – not him.

But, as Shetty noted, “That zoning change happened when [Maldonado] was alderman.”

“We all know that aldermanic privilege is an unwritten and somewhat unspoken practice. … Unless an alderman is making noise to oppose something, there’s no reason that any other alderman would take it upon themselves to oppose it,” Shetty said.

Shetty said he’s not opposed to slowing down the pace of gentrification and building more affordable housing in the neighborhood, but he doesn’t believe Maldonado is going about it in the right way.

“I’m just an individual property owner. This is not within the scope of my ownership of one, single, standard-sized lot. These are the sorts of decision that have to come through a comprehensive urban plan,” he said.

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