LINCOLN SQUARE — Lincoln Square neighbors have launched a petition to push forward an affordable housing development in the heart of the neighborhood after city officials told developers to reduce public parking spaces to secure critical funding.
Developer Community Builders won highly competitive tax credits in December for a five-story building with 51 affordable apartments and 5,000 square feet of ground-floor retail at a parking lot at 4715 N. Western Ave. It was the second time the company sought the tax credits after losing out in 2020.
The project was controversial among neighbors who wanted affordable housing but feared losing public parking in the popular commercial area. The latest plan would have preserved all but two of the public spaces, a design many felt was a good compromise.
But last month, housing Commissioner Marisa Novara and planning Commissioner Maurice Cox said they want the public parking scaled back before they’ll sign off on construction, Ald. Matt Martin (47th) said. City officials also want less commercial space and the development’s parking entrance moved.
That surprised neighbors, business owners and Martin (47th), who said they’re frustrated by the city’s position. The design of the development was negotiated after two years of tense community meetings. They also said they don’t understand why the city signed off on the tax credits or allowed the project to progress this far if the parking component was a non-starter.
City officials said they have repeatedly asked the developer for changes — before and after the tax credits announcement — that would reduce parking near public transit and preserve that space for as much affordable housing as possible. City leaders have suggested redesigns that would meet the city’s requirements. The tax credits go through two steps of approval, and the second one to allocate the money will not occur until the developer ticks the right boxes, city officials said.
Will Woodley, Community Builders’ director of development, declined to comment.
Neighbor Jesse Hoyt launched a petition this week asking Novara, Cox and Mayor Lori Lightfoot to not “allow a debate over things like parking and curb cuts to derail a critically needed affordable housing development.” As of Thursday, more than 250 people had signed.
“This is really frustrating given the fact that we felt like a compromise was met around businesses wanting parking while also realizing that we wanted 100 percent affordability as part of it,” Hoyt said. “This hesitancy two years into this process seems ridiculous.”
The development is proposed for a public lot across from the Western Avenue Brown Line station, one of two main sources of metered parking in the shopping district. In addition to the 51 apartments, it would offer 41 public parking spaces and nine spaces for residents.
Housing department spokesperson Eugenia Orr did not answer questions about the petition.
In a statement to Block Club, Orr said the city would not devote affordable housing funds to subsidize public parking. Orr said the city’s analysis shows an average of 10 out of the 43 metered spaces are used at any given time. Forty-one public spaces across from a busy train station aren’t necessary, and don’t meet the city’s goals to emphasize public transportation over cars, and low-cost housing near transit hubs, Orr said.
“Prioritizing parking for shoppers in a commercial district instead of maximizing housing for low-income residents is not an equitable use of extremely scarce affordable housing dollars,” Orr said.
Orr also reiterated what officials told business owners last month: The December announcement about the tax credits did not mean the project was a done deal. All 24 of the projects selected for the city funding will go through revisions before getting final approval, Orr said, and it is not unusual for projects to get preliminary approval and ultimately not meet the requirements for funding.
Aside from a January 2021 meeting Novara attended to detail the city’s affordable housing and transit policies, Orr said the Lincoln Square meetings to hammer out details of the proposal largely occurred without the input of city officials. Novara was not commenting on a specific proposal, Orr said.
The developer presented its overhauled design at a community meeting in May. Martin said his office routinely communicated with the planning and housing departments as the community talks progressed.
“We have regional planners assigned by [the Department of Planning and Development] to our ward who attended all of the meetings,” Martin said. “And we touch base regularly with this regional planners on a monthly basis. … I would say they have been very aware of what’s been going on. They have participated.”
Novara, Cox and members of the Mayor’s Office met with Lincoln Square neighbors and business leaders twice in March about the development. It was there many said they learned the city would not move the project forward as-is; the priority for the land needs to be more affordable housing for low-income residents near public transit, not parking spaces for shoppers, city officials said.
Hoping to salvage the project, the Heart Of Lincoln Square Neighbors Association, Greater Rockwell Organization, Lincoln Square North Neighbors and Lincoln Square Ravenswood Chamber of Commerce wrote to Novara and Cox asking them to find a compromise that preserves parking, increases affordable housing and guarantees pedestrian safety on Leland Avenue.
Hoyt said he hopes the petition help move things along. He said he is frustrated Novara emphasized community involvement to create equitable transit oriented development, but a compromise plan created with input from neighbors and business owners is being tossed out by her office, he said.
“There’s nothing worse than having somebody in a position of power basically ignore a process that has taken a lot of our personal time,” Hoyt said. “It’s nice they’re showing up, but if they’re not actually going to listen, then what’s the point?”
Martin will host a virtual meeting Wednesday for neighbors to discuss the status of the development.
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