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An over-the-fence spat, Gold Coast-style



In some respects, Bruce Tizes's argument with his neighbors is a typical over-the-fence spat, the kind that goes on all the time in this city. Tizes and his family want to build a three-story addition and a two-story garage behind their property at the corner of Astor and Schiller, and his neighbors don't want them to.

But this is the Gold Coast, and these combatants have gone beyond bad-mouthing each other; they've hired lawyers and filed lawsuits. "We are committed to preserving the integrity of our area," says Joseph Curcio, one of several residents who oppose Tizes. "What has happened to me and my family is that a small group of fanatics have turned what should be a family dream into a nightmare," says Tizes.

Tizes, an emergency room doctor, originally bought the adjoining row houses at 38 E. Schiller and 1401 N. Astor a few years ago with the idea of connecting them through a common wall and building the additions. It was his family's dream, he says, to get everyone--Tizes, his two sisters, his parents, his maternal grandmother, and his fiancee, Leslee Soroka--settled under one roof.

"I'm from New York City, and that's where my parents still live," he says. "My two sisters and I scattered across the country. I moved here for medical school. All we wanted was to live together in one city."

In 1990 he started house hunting, knowing little about Chicago or its neighborhoods. He turned to the Gold Coast at the suggestion of a real estate agent who told him that it was "the one area likely not to decline in value," says Tizes. "It reminded me of the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I thought this would be a nice place for my family."

He says he told his real estate agent and his lawyer that he would buy the property only on the condition that he could add onto it. "They assured me that I could build out," he says. "They showed me similar building plans that the [Schiller Street] owner had. They said those plans had been approved. They said the reason the owner was leaving was because he had kids and he needed a bigger place."

In 1990 Tizes and his parents bought the Schiller Street property for $695,000; Tizes had to wait until early 1992 to buy its Astor Street neighbor for $900,000. A few months later he hired an architectural firm to design the plans for his additions. That's when the bombshell hit.

The architects told him that his property was part of the Astor Street Historic District, in which almost all construction is regulated by the city's Commission on Chicago Landmarks. He'd have to hire a lawyer, they said, and there would be inspections, hearings, and, most likely, resistance. Yes, the town houses were narrow and living space was tight, and others before Tizes had wanted to build up and out. But Tizes had to understand that residents had little tolerance for and had been very vigilant against any construction they believed violated their community's architectural integrity. Indeed, Tizes soon discovered, the former owner of 38 E. Schiller had himself been prevented from building out by a lawsuit filed by Stephen Alport, his next-door neighbor.

On the advice of his friends and his architects, Tizes hired Jack Guthman, one of the city's best-known zoning lawyers. Guthman urged Tizes to meet with his neighbors, act conciliatory, and alter building plans when possible to ease their concerns. Tizes did scale back his plans, but his neighbors, he says, were in no mood for conciliation. As the summer wore on tempers flared, and Tizes learned that few fights are as bitter as those between neighbors, who pass on the street almost every day. In time, many of his neighbors became openly hostile, Tizes says.

"I'm Jewish and I have a lot of black friends, and some neighbors began making bigoted and hateful remarks," he says. "One neighbor said to Leslee, 'Why don't you build this in Skokie?' I went up to him and said, 'Let's work things out.' He said, 'We have irreconcilable genetic differences, sir.'"

Tizes says the tires on his Jeep were slashed and the small fountain in front of his house was filled was cement. And eventually, he admits, he began fighting back. After one neighbor allegedly called Soroka a whore, Tizes called him "an emasculated worm." When a neighbor allegedly said that Tizes and his pet monkey "looked the same, like New York Jews, I told her, 'That's a lot better than a Gold Coast WASP,'" says Tizes. Soroka got into a screaming fight with a neighbor when she momentarily left a bag of garbage in the alley. "He said, 'If you drop any of your garbage on my property, I'll slash your throat,'" says Soroka. She later filed a criminal complaint; the case will be heard in a few weeks.

Tizes bought a gun for protection and taught Soroka how to shoot. "I'm scared to death," says Soroka. "They hate us. It's so venomous."

Those neighbors who would comment vehemently deny Tizes's claim that his neighbors oppose his plans because he is Jewish and has black friends. They say they have no idea who was responsible for the alleged attacks on Tizes's fountain and Jeep, adding that at one time or another many of them have been crime victims.

"This is not anything that is personal between neighbors and Dr. Tizes," says Curcio. "It has nothing to do with Dr. Tizes's religion or his choice of friends. I'm Italian, the neighbor next to me is French. This is the first time in ten years that I have ever heard anybody say anything about race or religion. I did not know Tizes was Jewish until you just told me. His comments are absurd. I did not know he had any friends, let alone what color they are. This is Tizes's paranoia speaking."

Curcio says he opposes Tizes's building plans because they represent "a destruction of architectural integrity. It is interference with our right to light, air, and sunshine. It is a hazard to our families by increasing traffic." (Curcio believes that Tizes's building such a large garage would mean more cars coming up and down the alley.)

Curcio's lawyer, David Novoselsky, concurs. "I am Jewish and I find it offensive that Dr. Tizes would make such ludicrous remarks," he says. "The issue here is a historical landmark district. Once Astor Street is changed, it ain't ever coming back. My opinion is that it appears Tizes is trying to manipulate the Reader in the hope of manipulating the outcome of this case. It's foolish, and I don't feel it will work."

Novoselsky notes that some residents who oppose Tizes are themselves Jewish. That the neighborhood was fighting development proposals long before Tizes moved to town. And that no mention of race or religion was made at any public hearing on the matter, where residents passionately vowed to defend their neighborhood from intrusive development.

"It has been our experience that once you allow a structure like this in one of these hundred-year-old buildings everybody along Schiller Street and Astor Street will ask for the same thing," resident Mary Lou Maher testified at a Zoning Board of Appeals hearing. "We will then have a canyon of high-rise garages, rather than an open vista, which we thought Astor Street was."

The Chicago Commission on Landmarks received letters from roughly 40 residents opposing Tizes's building plan. But the same plan, which Tizes had hired a landmark consultant to help him with, was approved by the state Historic Preservation Agency and 43rd Ward Alderman Charles Bernardini. The landmarks commission's staff recommended approval, noting that the material and design of the addition and the garage were "compatible with and complement the existing significant historical or architectural features and qualities of the Astor Street Historic District." On December 3 the commission voted to approve Tizes's building plan.

Several residents appealed that ruling to the Zoning Board of Appeals, which also sided with Tizes. In March Curcio, Maher, Stephen Alport, Catherine Alport, Curtiss Cohen, Susan Cohen, Thomas Radtke, and Bonnie Herman-Radtke took the case to court, suing, among others, the city, the ZBA, Bernardini, Tizes, his parents, his architects, Soroka, and two of his friends. "The [ZBA's] decision adversely affects the plaintiffs by depreciating the value of their residence and denying them the full use and enjoyment of their property," alleges the suit, which seeks to set aside Tizes's building permit and asks for "punitive damages in the sum of $1 million." Tizes has been enjoined from making any changes to his property while the case is being heard.

In the meantime, Tizes has sued the people who sold him the row houses on Schiller and Astor as well as all of the lawyers and real estate agents involved in those transactions. He alleges that the sellers and the real estate agents committed fraud by making "false, misleading, and deceptive statements, representations, and omissions." He wants the court to "rescind the purchase of 38 E. Schiller," returning to Tizes the asking price along with monetary damages and attorneys' fees.

"I wish I never moved to the Gold Coast, but I'm going to stay here until the day after this litigation is done," says Tizes. "And then I'll move someplace normal, like Hyde Park."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.

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