LINCOLN SQUARE — An affordable apartment building in the heart of Lincoln Square has stalled as city officials, the alderman and developer wrangle over public parking, confusing residents who thought the design of the long-awaited project was a done deal.
Ald. Matt Martin (47th) has urged city leaders to approve plans for a 51-unit affordable housing complex with 41 public parking spaces at 4715 N. Western Ave., currently a parking lot across from the Brown Line.
But officials from the city’s Departments of Housing and Planning said they’ve been telling Martin and the project’s developer for months that city tax credits for affordable housing can’t be used to fund so much parking.
Developer Community Builders was pre-approved for highly competitive tax credits in December after two years of tense community meetings on bringing low-cost units to the increasingly expensive area while maintaining business district parking. The pre-approval did not mean the plan would be approved as-is, housing officials said.
“In order to proceed to [Stage Two of the approval process],” the city told Martin and Community Builders that “the developer would need to reduce the public parking, maximize housing and remove the curb cut to access parking from the alley,” housing department spokesperson Eugenia Orr said in a statement.
Housing officials said the number of public spaces far outweighs what’s needed, takes away land that could be used for low-cost housing and doesn’t support goals to prioritize public transit over cars.
Martin and Community Builders have not relayed that to residents, and the developer has not made the requested changes, city officials said. Instead, Martin led “an extensive process that was divorced from the reality of what the city would support,” one housing official said.
Martin said the issue came up before the project was chosen among 24 to be considered for tax credits, but he said he did not interpret parking to be “a clear red line.” He said he was blindsided when city officials said the project would not move forward unless developers scaled back the public parking.
“It’s one thing to share policy preferences; it’s another thing to say, ‘… This is not going to happen after a certain point unless X, Y and Z are changed,’” Martin said. “I was not told, especially in writing, prior to the December announcement, that parking was a nonstarter in any way. … I think that this [current design] is a fair compromise.”
Will Woodley, Community Builders’ director of development, said he also didn’t realize there was a “line in the sand” involving parking, and thought explaining the need for it in their application would be sufficient.
“… We can advance much-needed [transit-oriented development], preserve parking for local businesses and deliver pedestrian-oriented design in one mixed-used design,” Woodley said. “While not the easiest of projects, I believe we can work together to deliver on those collective goals at this site.”
Martin will host a virtual meeting Wednesday for neighbors to discuss the status of the development.
City officials say they’re committed to making the project happen and it is customary for project designs to change as part of the tax credits process. Housing Commissioner Marisa Novara said the guiding principles for these developments are to “reduce parking, increase density and maximize affordability.”
“The Department of Housing’s mission is to maximize affordability to reduce our profound racial and economic segregation,” Novara said in a statement. “For this particular property, the city is donating high-value property for free and foregoing future parking revenue in order to maximize affordable housing at this transit-oriented site.”
‘We’re Really Close To A Deal Here’
The city’s process for awarding low-income housing tax credits has two stages. The Western Avenue project was chosen in part because of its location on city-owned land near a major train station, Orr said.
To move to the second stage — where officials will work with developers on financing, construction and city approvals — Community Builders must scale down parking, Orr said.
“We support an affordable development at this site because it meets our goal of providing affordable housing in areas where it is scarce, especially near transit …,” Orr said. “Our goal is to create affordable housing, which means we work with developers and other city departments to successfully get them to Phase II, not simply reject them when their otherwise promising submissions fall short.”
Martin hosted meetings in 2021 to collect feedback from neighbors, shoppers and business owners. City officials attended meetings in January, March and April 2021, Martin said. The design Community Builders pitched in May incorporated feedback from from the Lincoln Square community, as well as the city’s housing and planning departments, Woodley said.
The city’s December announcement did not mention the tax credits were contingent on the developer reducing public parking, Martin and neighbors said.
Housing officials said their position has not changed and they always made it clear they would not use scarce affordable housing funding to subsidize public parking for private businesses. Existing parking spaces in the district aren’t being utilized, they added, and other city-backed projects, like Emmett Street in Logan Square, have zero public parking.
Martin’s subsequent meetings with residents were not part of the city’s process to award the tax credits, were done without housing at the table and have created “confusion and delay,” a city official said.
“In most cases, developers incorporate city feedback prior to submission,” a housing official said. “Unfortunately, this developer did not which has caused evident confusion and delay.”
Planning department spokesman Peter Strazzabosco previously told Block Club an alternative would include 60 apartments and around 19 parking spaces, based on city data for how much the lot is used. The city also has pitched a design that would have 18 spaces.
Martin said the city is underestimating the lot’s use and scaling down parking that much would force developers to make the building taller to make room for more apartments, which would make the project more expensive.
Woodley said the location justifies a mix of transportation options.
“The site is truly at the heart of a mini-downtown for this section of Chicago,” he said. “In such a setting, it is common to have public parking and transit stations near each other to offer multiple transportation modes to access amenities, services and events.”
Neighbors did not learn of the standoff until March, when city leaders and members of the Mayor’s Office spoke to Lincoln Square residents and business leaders. Community groups since have written to Novara and planning Commissioner Maurice Cox asking them to find a compromise that preserves parking, increases affordable housing and guarantees pedestrian safety.
Lincoln Square neighbors have also launched a petition in support of the project.
The developer’s proposal may fall short of what the city wants, but it was created after years of input from the Lincoln Square community and is a fair compromise, Martin said.
“At the end of the day, we’re really close to a deal here,” Martin said.
If Community Builders fails to reduce parking and make the needed changes, the city said it can market the property to other developers who want to follow the city’s Equitable Transit-Oriented Development criteria for affordable housing.
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