WICKER PARK — After a property owner partially demolished a historical building in Wicker Park, neighbors asked city leaders to fine him and temporarily stop development at the site.
Instead, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks voted 5-3 at a Thursday meeting to let Benjamin Neikrug resume work — so long as he provides monthly status reports until the project is completed.
The commission’s approval doesn’t bar city leaders from issuing future fines and disciplinary action against Neikrug. In fact, several commissioners — including some who voted “yes” on a new permit — said they hope the Law Department punishes him.
Fines will be calculated and imposed in administrative court, so the landmarks commission will work with the city attorneys to weigh any future disciplinary action, said Dijana Cuvalo, a staffer with the city’s Department of Planning and Development.
Built in 1885, the balloon-framed three-flat at 1460 N. Milwaukee Ave. was within the Milwaukee Avenue Historic District. Properties within the protected area can only be renovated or demolished with permission from the landmarks commission and the city’s buildings department.
Neighbor Teddy Varndell told commissioners on Thursday that without serious consequences for developers, tearing down a historical property illegally and paying fines after the fact will become “the cost of doing development.”
The demolition of this building was the latest in a series of recent unauthorized demolitions of historic properties in the neighborhood, he said.
“It can’t be replaced by a Disneyland replication. It’s never the same,” he said. “Soon our culture becomes an inch-thick and the-length-of-Milwaukee-Avenue-long. This has become tragically commonplace.”
Neikrug, whose family has owned the property for decades, told the commission he learned the building’s top two stories needed to be demolished during the course of previously approved renovation work. His contractor said the property was dangerous and unsalvageable due to a lack of fire safety measures, he said.
He said he should have notified the city before his contractor completed the demolition.
“The buck stops with us,” he said. “We’ll take responsibility for that. … There was no intent to do anything malicious. There was no intent to raze the building.”
‘A Violation Of Community Trust’
Neikrug received authorization last year from the commission’s permit review committee to renovate the property, but with specific restrictions, said Peter Strazzabosco, spokesman for the city’s Department of Planning and Development.
“The project was supposed to retain the façade at the second floor and rebuild the facade at the third floor,” Strazzabosco said. “Non-historic siding was to be replaced, along with historically appropriate windows and a new cornice, based on historic photos.”
While working on the building in December, Neikrug said his contractor discovered significant “charring” inside the façade on the top stories. They then learned the façade lacked fire sheeting, making it dangerous and unlivable, Neikrug said.
Once the contractor determined the top floors were unstable and unsalvageable, he decided to demolish them, Neikrug said. Because the demolition went beyond the scope of the approved permit, the Department of Buildings issued a stop work order.
The yellow façade that was torn down was not original to the building, Neukrig said. His grandfather added it in the 1970s. He intends to rebuild the facade to mimic its original, 1880s brick design, he said.
“I saw my grandparents interact with the community,” he said. “We do cherish this building. It is very dear to us.”
Elaine Coorens, neighborhood historian, OurUrbanTimes journalist and longtime resident, said the building was one of the last remaining structures with a balloon frame on the façade.
She characterized Neukrig’s actions as an example of an “Oops! I’m sorry” tactic in which developers get away with demolishing historical structures without authorization.
“We ask you to step up and impose substantial sanctions for the improper demolition of this building,” she said. “Ensure the wild, wild West does not return to development in Wicker Park.”
Kyle Sneed, president of the Wicker Park Committee — a nonprofit, volunteer-run neighborhood association that routinely weighs in on zoning issues — said neighbors approved a request for a zoning change for the property in 2019; however, their approval was conditional to the property owner maintaining the historical structure. That promise was violated and trust was lost, he said.
In addition to imposing maximum fines and a building moratorium, Sneed asked the commission to have better enforcement of required demolition permits — and on-site monitoring of a demolition when it must occur.
“These sanctions must be a deterrent to breaking the rules, and not just another development expense,” he said. “This was a violation of community trust.”
Preservation Chicago Director Ward Miller supported neighbors’ demands.
“We see this time and time again,” he said. They are great losses, and they’re sort of a missing tooth in our landmark districts.”
‘It Just Doesn’t Sound Right’
Before voting on the permit renewal, Commissioner Lynn Osmond questioned the timing of the demolition, asking why the contractor would have initiated work on a fragile building during the winter. The demolition happened to take place while the Commission was on a two-week break, she said.
Balloon frames are part of the “DNA of Chicago” and are no longer allowed under current code, she said.
“It just doesn’t sound right,” she said. “I’m concerned this is a trend we’re now seeing in our historic districts.”
Planning Department Commissioner Maurice Cox said that while he agreed the demolition was unfortunate, the group was unable to truly ascertain the developer’s intent. Not approving a permit could leave a “hole” on Milwaukee Avenue, which would ultimately punish the neighborhood, he said. That said, he thinks “a fine is warranted.”
“I don’t want to cut off our nose to spite our face,” he said.
Commissioner Paola Aguirre disagreed, saying approving the permit for new work Thursday could set a precedent for other developers “that it’s better to ask for pardon than permission.”
Commissioner Suellen Burns said that while it is not the role of the commission to impose penalties, she hopes the Law Department fines Neukrig the maximum amount.
“Intent or lack thereof is not an excuse for the irresponsible actions of the contractor,” she said.
Commission Chair Ernest Wong voted to approve the permit; however, he, too, said he hopes Neukrig is fined.
In its official staff report, the Department of Planning and Development recommended the approval of a future work permit so long as the building owner complies with monthly status reports until the project is completed.
The ground floor of the building, home to the US #1 Vintage store, remained intact during demolition, officials said. However, a plywood façade encases the storefront. It’s not clear when the business will reopen.
The business owner, Dominic Darabi, has been a tenant for 30 years, Neikrug said, and he’s anxious to reopen once construction can continue.
“He’s part of the fabric of the community,” Neikrug said. “We wanna get him back in there.”
RELATED: After City Stops Improper Demolition Of Historic Wicker Park Building, Owner Wants Permission To Finish The Job
Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st), who has called for stricter rules around demolitions, noticed the removal of the building’s upper stories while on a December bike ride.
Earlier this week, the alderman said he questioned the efficacy of a system to regulate historical buildings if a property owner can demolish a building in a protected district and continue work after submitting new plans and paying a fine.
“I have a lot of frustration with how our demolition process works,” he said. “The whole trend of demolition-driven development is a real scourge on our area.”
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