LINCOLN SQUARE — Residents held a demonstration Saturday afternoon in an ongoing battle over an affordable housing proposal near the Brown Line.
Dozens joined a “Build Housing Now” rally to support a project for 51 low-cost apartments in the city-owned parking lot at 4715 N. Western Ave., across from the Western Avenue station.
The project, led by Community Developers, was preliminarily approved for critical affordable housing city tax credits in December. It has since stalled as it came to light that Department of Housing and Department of Planning and Development officials long were insisting on fewer parking spaces in the final design before they would allocate the funding. The proposal as is includes 41 spaces.
City leaders say they want to bring as much affordable housing as possible, do not think the neighborhood’s commercial district requires that much parking and do not want to use scarce public funding to support parking when they are trying to encourage use of public transportation. Officials also have said they have suggested designs with more apartments and 18 or 19 parking spaces that would meet their requirements and allow the project to move forward.
At the time of the rally, the parking lot was more than two-thirds full.
Housing officials say they’ve told Ald. Matt Martin (47th) and the developer for months the number of parking spaces were a no-go. Residents only recently learned of the city’s position, confusing and angering supporters who thought the long-negotiated project was a done deal.
Martin vowed to keep advocating for the current design while some neighbors have urged all the officials involved to broker a compromise to get the deal done.
Lincoln Square resident Alex Nelson said she organized the rally to show city leaders how much support the project has.
“This is something we as a neighborhood, who live in this area and who walk past this development every day; this is something we care about a lot and we want to see it move forward,” Nelson said. “There’s obviously a presence of people in this neighborhood that care about this issue.”
John Morrison of Indivisible Lincoln Square said the housing is critical for the neighborhood’s future.
“We need to add housing in this community if we want to keep our community vibrant, if we want to keep our community diverse,” Morrison said. “People love Lincoln Square, they want to move here and the people who move here want to own bigger places. What is going to happen as we lose density is we are going to lose support for our great local businesses.”
Martin attended the rally but declined comment. He pledged to get Mayor Lori Lightfoot involved but her office would not say if they would meet with Martin about the project.
Since the project was announced two years ago, it has been controversial among neighbors who want affordable housing and those who want ample parking in the shopping district. The latest plan would have preserved all but two of the public spaces, a design some felt was a good compromise.
Some said they thought the city also favored that design when they chose the project among 24 to benefit from $1 billion in tax credits. City officials have since explained there is a two-step approval process, and it is common for the city and developer to revamp or redesign projects to secure the funding.
Housing officials accused Martin of continuing to tout the parking despite the city’s opposition, something the alderman denies.
“We found a great compromise,” Morrison said. “During that compromise process, the city was behind us. And then suddenly, they’re not. We need to tell them that it’s too late. We’re ready. The community is ready.”
Lincoln Square resident Peter Evans said the neighborhood is overdue to make better use of that lot.
“It’s just been a parking lot for a while and it’s next to a bank that doesn’t operate as a bank anymore,” he said. “It’s kind of an unused space.”
Illinois House of Representatives candidates Joe Struck and Eileen Dordek also attended the rally in support of the project. Both are running for the 13th District seat, which represents parts of Uptown, Lincoln Square and Ravenswood.
“Housing should be as unique as this neighborhood is,” Struck said. “It should not be uniform, rigid or homogenous — just like the people in this community are not uniform or homogenous. Outdated zoning laws create housing scarcity. Housing at different income levels creates community and keeps it intact.”
Dordek said she is a long-time resident of the area and remembers talking with Martin about the project two years ago.
“This is something that I know from knocking doors for many years in this community we need,” she said.
Other supporters pointed to the the explosion of expensive housing in the neighborhood, part of a citywide trend in which two-, three-, and four-flats are rapidly being replaced with single-family homes in wealthier areas like Lincoln Square and North Center.
Jesse Hoyt, a community organizer who started a petition in support of the project, has said he’s seen that dynamic in Ravenswood, where he grew up.
“The neighborhood is still a wonderful place,” Hoyt said. “Just because we’ve got new neighbors doesn’t mean it’s changed that drastically. But we have lost diversity — and that comes at a cost. Especially being a young man and Mexican, I think it’s really important to see people like myself in the neighborhood to feel comfortable.”
Mary Claire Schmit, who previously lived in Ravenswood and now owns a building in Albany Park, said failing to bring affordable housing to fruition could have broad implications.
“It’s scary to think if this affordable housing doesn’t get built, what that means for the neighboring communities and what’s to come,” Schmit said.
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