LOGAN SQUARE — A long-discussed plan to block dense development in gentrifying Logan Square and Avondale has resurfaced after more than a year and is headed to a key city committee for a vote.
The plan, crafted by Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) and his staffers, calls for slashing zoning on 14 properties along Milwaukee Avenue between Kedzie Boulevard and Central Park Avenue.
The city’s Zoning Committee is scheduled to vote on the plan at its Dec. 1 hearing, Ramirez-Rosa said.
Ramirez-Rosa said a trend has emerged in Logan Square, Avondale and other parts of the city: Developers and property owners sit on properties “that could otherwise be used productively” and wait for the right person to come along to build tall, dense development — forms of land-banking and real estate speculation.
The goal of the rezoning plan is to curb this practice and to “preserve the existing built environment” along the Milwaukee Avenue stretch, he said in an email to residents last week.
Reached by phone Wednesday, the alderman declined to provide specific examples, saying, “Obviously we don’t make zoning decisions to target individuals,” but, “There are instances we’ve heard of property owners turning away commercial tenants because they say, ‘I may redevelop it.’ Or, ‘I’m going to keep it empty and sell it to someone who will build something larger.'”
Ramirez-Rosa’s “downzoning” plan has roused heated debates among neighbors stretching back to 2017. Over the past three years, some have argued the plan will impede economic growth in the area, while others have said it’s a needed tool to preserve affordability and small businesses in the hot neighborhoods.
An overwhelming majority of the residents who filled out a comment card at a contentious 2017 meeting said they support the alderman’s plan.
The plan heading to the Zoning Committee is a scaled-back version.
The original version, which surfaced in 2017, called for slashing zoning on all 99 properties along the Milwaukee Avenue stretch, a “blanket downzone,” according to some neighbors.
After some property owners and residents put up a fight, Ramirez-Rosa and his staffers took a step back and assessed each site along the stretch.
They determined 14 parcels have zoning designations that would allow a developer to come in and build a tall, dense development and to demolish an existing building, and they reworked the plan to only include those parcels.
That plan was introduced in City Council over the summer in a series of proposed ordinances, but it never went up for a vote.
“Because of the new [mayoral] administration, the new Zoning Committee chair and then COVID-19, we’re just now getting around to be able to move forward with” this, Ramirez-Rosa said.
This winter, Chicago is facing a new set of challenges: the coronavirus’s second wave here and the resulting economic fallout. But Ramirez-Rosa said the rezoning plan has only become “more important” amid the crisis.
“By aligning a parcel’s zoning with [its] existing use, we hope to spur investment and economic development by signaling to the market that what you see is what you get,” the alderman said in the email to constituents. “In so doing, we hope to limit speculation and disinvestment in these properties.”
Ramirez-Rosa isn’t the only Chicago alderman to use “downzoning” to control development. Many have used the tool over the years to varying degrees.
The strategy is sometimes criticized for being a blunt instrument that promotes stagnation and gives already-powerful aldermen more control over what gets built in their wards. But proponents of the tool argue it’s a proactive measure that fosters more thoughtful conversations around development.
The idea to rezone Milwaukee Avenue started with a group of Avondale property owners and business owners who fear the building boom in Logan Square will encroach on their neighborhood. In recent years, large residential developments have been built in Logan Square, particularly near the California Blue Line station.
Ramirez-Rosa said the rezoning plan is just one of a few tools stakeholders are using to ensure the Milwaukee Avenue stretch thrives in years to come.
Ramirez-Rosa said he and the other aldermen who represent the area — Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st) and Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) — recently sent a letter to the city asking officials to conduct a broad study on the successes and challenges of Milwaukee Avenue.
Community leaders are also working the city officials who run the Small Business Improvement Fund to bring new businesses to the area, the alderman said.
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