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Bronzeville, Near South Side

Plan To Crack Down On Home Museums Scrapped After Fierce Opposition From Artists, Historians

Ald. Sophia King said there was a "highly coordinated campaign” against the ordinance, and she criticized Ald. Michele Smith and Mayor Lori Lightfoot for their opposition to it.

The Lu and Jorja Palmer Mansion, 3654 S. King Drive, is set to become a museum and Black media center. Ald. Sophia King (inset) scrapped an ordinance that would further regulate residential museums.

CHICAGO — Facing fierce opposition, a South Side alderman on Tuesday withdrew a measure that would restrict home museums from opening in most residential neighborhoods.

Ald. Sophia King (4th), introduced the proposed ordinance that aimed to prohibit museums from opening in some residential districts, saying last month she learned the “hard way” that private homes can be converted to small museums without a zoning change — allowing the museum to bypass the community input process some aldermen require before a zoning request is considered.

The ordinance was up for consideration at a meeting of the Zoning Committee before King announced she was withdrawing the measure. It was also on the agenda at last month’s meeting, but was ultimately held in committee by its chairman, Ald. Tom Tunney (44th).

In a statement posted to Twitter, King said the “highly coordinated campaign” against the ordinance was led by a high-powered lobbyist. King also alleged Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) opposed the ordinance to protect a wealthy donor and said Mayor Lori Lightfoot once supported a version of the plan before distancing herself from the measure on Monday.

The Chicago Tribune first reported the withdrawal.

King said after hearing from community groups, museums and others, “in addition to the many misperceptions and false statements about what this ordinance is and is not,” she was “withdrawing it from the zoning committee so that we can have further discussion” with the community.

“I am however, extremely disappointed that the Mayor would absolve herself and her administration from any involvement in this ordinance as they were very supportive of a very similar plan that would have called for a special use for all house museums in residential districts,” King said.

On Monday, Lightfoot called the ordinance “highly problematic” at an unrelated news conference.

“We’re more than willing to work with [King] to address the concerns, but I think that by completely banning these residential museums it’s an overreach for what the narrow issue is that she’s identified,” Lightfoot said.

In her statement, King suggested Smith and lobbyist Michael Alvarez were leading the opposition for a wealthy donor of Smith’s.

Entrepreneur and philanthropist Fred Eychaner lives in Lincoln Park and owns Wrightwood 659, an extravagant art museum on a residential block next door to his home in Smith’s ward.

Eychaner is a prolific donor to democratic campaigns, including to Smith. Since 2011, campaign finance reports show Eychaner has donated $18,200 to Smith’s campaign committee, although Smith has refunded $9,200 in contributions back to Eychaner.

Many owners of home museums and members of the arts community joined Tuesday’s Zoning meeting to oppose to the ordinance. Smith said the opposition voiced during the meeting’s public comment “answers the charge that this has anything to do with me personally.”

“The arts community is grateful that she is withdrawing the ordinance. It’s disappointing that she continues to try to make this personal. Opposition to the ordinance is overwhelming from all corners of the city,” Smith said.

Smith, who chairs the Committee on Ethics and Government Oversight, vehemently objected the allegation that she was working to please a wealthy donor at last month’s zoning meeting, saying her opposition to the ordinance was because it wasn’t fully baked and left the museum community out of the discussion.

“I have never, in my history as alderman, been accused of doing a favor for a donor,” she said.

The proposed ordinance was not voted on last month after Tunney, who chairs the Committee on Zoning, said he wanted more time to discuss it with aldermen and the Lightfoot administration.

King described Tunney’s delay as “disingenuous.” She called Smith’s objection “disingenuous” and “selfish.”

Last week, community groups, preservationists and the owners of home museums in the planning stages spoke out against the ordinance, saying it would prevent them from opening or would restrict them from expanding even if their property was grandfathered in under King’s ordinance.

Under King’s ordinance, homeowners looking to open museums, libraries and cultural centers at a residence would have to secure their alderman’s approval for a zoning change in some cases, and gain city approval for a specialuse permit in others.

It also could jeopardize ongoing preservation projects such as the Lu and Jorja Palmer mansion in Bronzeville, the Phyllis Wheatley Home in Washington Park and the recently-landmarked Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley residence in Woodlawn. Each aims to open a museum or library within their respective structures.

The ordinance proposal “makes no sense,” said Obsidian Collection executive director Angela Ford, who is leading the Palmer mansion redevelopment plans. Ford wants to purchase the home at 3654 S. King Drive and turn it into a museum, library and archive for Black media makers by next year.

The massive, 133-year-old residence sits in King’s ward and has been vacant for nearly two decades.

“As we come into a post-COVID world, I’m really curious as to what the vision is for our communities, other than gentrification,” Ford said. “With all of the museums that are mentioned in the press right now, these are all Black leaders that have stepped forward to beautify their own communities. That very act is being challenged.”

On Monday, the Sun Times reported one of the home museums that could be affected by the measure was one in the works to honor the Nation of Islam leader, Elijah Muhammad, 4847 S. Woodlawn Ave., that shares a block with Ald. King’s home residence.

On WTTW Monday evening, King said there was “nothing nefarious” about her proposal and that she simply wanted to give communities a voice on matters in their neighborhoods.

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