UPTOWN — Although a national developer already has the city’s green light to build a 12-story apartment complex at a Weiss Memorial Hospital parking lot, not everyone is on board — and some are still vehemently opposed to it.
Neighbors, advocates and researchers gathered Sunday afternoon for a community hearing in opposition to the controversial project, which has become a flashpoint in the broader battle over gentrification in Uptown.
Lincoln Property Company plans to turn the parking lot of Weiss Hospital, 4600 N. Marine Drive, into an apartment complex with 306 market-rate and eight affordable units. The courtyard-style building will face Wilson Avenue and will include 136 parking spaces, a bike room and a rooftop deck. It’s not clear if the sale of the property to Lincoln has been finalized, according to city property records.
The development faced challenges from several elected officials and neighbors prior to its approval in City Council in July. There were protests, community letters of opposition and an unprecedented vote change by a local zoning board as many felt the development would accelerate displacement of low-income residents in Uptown.
“We have been fighting for over two years now to stop the development of luxury, unaffordable housing in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the entire world,” said Angela Clay, an Uptown native who is an organizer in the campaign to block the Weiss project. “This development will not only displace more community residents, but it’s kind of the line in the sand for us.”
About 50 people attended Sunday’s Q&A-style hearing virtually and in person at Haymarket House, 800 W. Buena Ave., a few blocks away from the development. The goal was to raise awareness and establish “a public record about what happened with the Weiss Hospital development and why it’s a bad step for our neighborhood,” said Charlie Issacs, a lawyer with Uptown People’s Law Center who led the meeting.
The building will include eight affordable units, the minimum number required by city ordinance. The developers are making a $3.1 million in-lieu payment for the remaining 23 required affordable units. The money will go Sarah’s Circle, which will build 38 units of permanent affordable housing for women experiencing chronic homelessness.
But while many neighbors have supported the investment in Sarah’s Circle, they don’t feel it’s enough to address the neighborhood’s dissipating affordable options.
Janet Smith, a professor of urban planning and policy at University of Illinois Chicago, presented data showing Uptown is becoming less affordable for households who make under $70,000 per year. In 2020, a majority of those households were cost-burdened, or spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent, she said.
Smith also criticized developers’ practice of only including the bare minimum number of affordable units.
“We are continuing to add more luxury housing to get a very small number of affordable units,” Smith said. “We often refer to this as ‘chasing the problem’ rather than solving it.’”
Asked for comment, Ald. James Cappleman (46th), who was not at the meeting, directed Block Club to a June letter he wrote to Lakeside Area Neighbors Association in response to the concerns brought up at the hearing.
Cappleman wrote he’s abiding by the City’s Law Department and Department of Housing which have directed City Council members “stay within the confines” of the ordinance on the number of required affordable units.
He also wrote that Lincoln development will help preserve Uptown’s existing affordable housing options.
“If we don’t provide more apartments to meet the demand for upgraded units in the ward, developers will go after our naturally occurring affordable housing (as they have already done, building as of right) and I want to avoid that,” he wrote.
“A number of valid and reliable research articles have shown that building more apartments, including luxury units, will help stabilize or lower area rents,” he wrote. He did not cite any of the articles he mentioned.
But Smith said those naturally occurring affordable housing options may not stay affordable, especially as luxury developers push market rate rents higher, incentivizing property owners to increase rent or sell the property to a developer and turn a profit.
“Owners of property, they look at what the market is getting through these luxury apartments, and they’re going to say, ‘We’re not going stay cheap or affordable; we’re actually going to try to increase our return on investment,’” she said.
Tom Gordon, the mayor of Uptown Tent City in the park across the street from Lincoln’s development, said the homeless encampment’s population has ballooned from two tents last winter to 25-30.
“With the evictions, we’re going to get a lot more. We need affordable housing, not luxury housing,” Gordon said.
Michael Grice, a disability rights advocate, said he was a resident of another Lincoln property who was pushed out in 2019 after Lincoln took over and made all the units market-rate.
“I definitely feel concerned,” Grice said about the Weiss development. “It’s not going to be affordable for people with disabilities or seniors, and it’s not going to be accessible.”
Lincoln did not return Block Club’s requests for comment.
The project, which needed a zoning change approval, went through Cappleman’s zoning and development committee for a vote of approval in June.
But Diane Santucci, a board member of Lakeview Towers Residents Association who was on the zoning committee, said she wasn’t able to submit her ‘no’ vote in the virtual meeting due to technical difficulties. Santucci sent Cappleman an email with her vote right after, but said Cappleman wrote back that her vote wouldn’t be accepted because her email wasn’t from a “business email.”
The final vote was 16 in favor and 15 against after Santucci’s vote was rejected and another representative changed his ‘no’ vote to a ‘yes’ vote after the meeting. Cappleman made the final decision to approve the zoning change.
“This project passed through meetings with Lakeside Area Neighbors Association, the 46th Ward zoning process, the Chicago Plan Commission, the Committee on Zoning, Landmarks, and Building Standards, and full City Council,” Maggie Gaecke, Cappleman’s deputy chief of staff, wrote in an email to Block Club.
In early 2019, California-based Pipeline Health bought Weiss and two suburban hospitals for $70 million. Shortly after the sale, Pipeline closed Westlake Hospital in Melrose Park and was forced to pay the village a $1.5 million settlement, prompting local elected officials and neighbors in Uptown to worry the developer would also close Weiss.
The hospital is a critical provider of health care in the community, and it houses a medical center for gender-related surgeries, something activists say is a rare and important medical resource for the local trans community.
Pipeline has said it plans to keep the hospital open long-term and invest $25 million into it. As of June, Weiss has spent roughly $15 million in upgrading its electronic medical records system and an expanded orthopedic center.
“I think that’s proof that we are here for the long haul,” Weiss CEO Irene Dumanis said in an interview with Block Club in June.
However, neighbors and advocates aren’t convinced Pipeline will keep the hospital in operation, citing the company’s previous track record.
Cappleman was concerned about Weiss Hospital closing, as well, but after a tour at the hospital, “it’s clear that substantial investment is in process,” he wrote in the June letter.
He also said there are additional safeguards in place at Weiss because it’s situated on a planned development site and “any change in use for the hospital would have to have the support of me, the Plan Commission, the City’s Zoning, Landmarks, and Building Standards, and City Council.”
That hasn’t reassured many residents.
“People are scared,” Clay said. “When you are talking about affordability and housing, you are talking about the basis of what all of us need to survive. People really want to protect that, but they don’t feel their voices are being heard.”
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