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Caving Early

Manny Plores's latest attempt to protect old buildings in East Village looks like an attempt to avoid a fight.

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Two years ago Manny Flores beat Jesse Granato in the race for alderman of the First Ward in part by campaigning against rampant development in East Village. Once in office Flores tried to freeze demolition permits, but city lawyers told him that was unconstitutional. Next he tried to downzone the area, but he was told there were already too many out-of-compliance buildings for it to qualify for a more restrictive zoning.

In December Flores quietly presented a third plan, a landmark district that would protect the remaining old buildings. There was one problem with the plan--the area he proposed to protect included barely half of East Village, leaving the blocks just west of Ashland vulnerable to more demolition and development.

According to the nonprofit group Preservation Chicago, in the past few years East Village--which is bounded roughly by Damen, Ashland, Division, and Grand (the First Ward's southern boundary is Chicago)--has lost dozens of old cottages, apartment buildings, and Queen Anne two-flats and seen them replaced with taller condo buildings. "Developers in East Village have mastered the economics of squeezing profit from their ability to build quickly, cheaply, poorly and tastelessly out of scale," says a 2003 Preservation Chicago report, which put all of the East Village on its annual list of threatened buildings in Chicago. "More amazing is that they have found a willing supply of buyers for what can only be described as architectural pollution."

On January 5 the city's Commission on Chicago Landmarks tentatively approved the map of the East Village Landmark District, which includes 293 buildings. The commission will study the issues surrounding the creation of the district and sometime in the next few months make a final recommendation to the City Council on whether the district should be permanently adopted. Until then, all development within the district is frozen: no teardowns or even minor exterior alterations are allowed without the approval of the landmark commission, though property owners are allowed to make changes to interiors.

The landmark commission and the City Council will probably approve the district, because both bodies generally follow the local alderman's lead. And so Flores has been hailed as a hero by preservationists and denounced as a tyrant by angry home owners. The debate has grown heated, and it's hard to tell which side has the most support--signs favoring and opposing landmarking are visible in windows throughout the neighborhood.

But putting aside the pros and cons of landmarking in general, the proposed boundaries simply don't make any sense. Instead of drawing a line around the community and aiming to protect everything within it, the map creates three separate, zigzagging landmark zones.

Obviously there isn't much Flores can do about the part of East Village that's in Alderman Ted Matlak's 32nd Ward, a small section on the west edge that's bounded by Augusta and Iowa, Damen and Honore. But the landmark district leaves out the entire eastern section of East Village--from Hermitage to Ashland between Chicago and Division--which is in Flores's ward. If he really wants to save the neighborhood from demolition and ugly development, why is so much of it excluded?

Flores says he didn't design the district. "The process is regulated by the planning department, which has its criteria for landmark districts," he says. "You should talk to Brian Goeken."

Goeken, deputy commissioner of the landmarks division of the planning department, says there aren't enough historic old buildings in East Village to justify making the zones any larger. "We started with an area with the highest concentration of historic buildings," he says. "You need to have enough so there's a notion you're preserving something."

The west side of East Village does indeed have the highest concentration of old buildings. But there are still nice ones on the east side that are worth protecting. On Marshfield, Hermitage, and Paulina between Division and Chicago, old buildings still outnumber new ones by two to one, and many of them are indistinguishable from or superior to houses in the proposed protected areas. They just happen to be on the wrong side of a line on a map.

Goeken and Flores also say the landmark district should be as contiguous as possible. But in some areas, like a tiny section that runs east of Wood along Cortez, the district's boundaries briefly jump across the street to encompass a few nice old houses on otherwise unprotected blocks. If the boundaries can leap across the street there, why don't they leap across the 1100 block of Wolcott or the 800 and 900 blocks of Hermitage? In each case, the west side of the street is in the landmark district, and the east is not. That means a developer can buy a redbrick worker's cottage on the east side of the street, tear it down, and replace it with a four-story sliver that towers over the landmarked houses on the west side of the street.

Ward boundaries in this part of the city already zigzag through neighborhoods, gerrymandered by aldermen who wanted to rid themselves of rebellious precincts. But why would anyone gerrymander a landmark district before being forced to?

City Hall insiders who don't want to be named say it's highly unlikely that a City Hall bureaucrat, like Goeken, would tell an alderman how a landmark district should be drawn. They believe Flores, his denials to the contrary, had a hand in drafting the map, and they think he drew it the way he did in an attempt to mollify his preservationist allies while limiting opposition. "You want to save as many buildings as you can without riling up too many people," says one supporter of landmarking who didn't want to be identified for fear of offending both Flores and the antipreservationists. "You get what you can with preservation--you can't get it all."

That's the classic strategy of mainstream preservationists, who argue that you have to give up something to get something. But in this case someone seems to have given up large chunks of East Village before the various interests even started fighting. Moreover, the strategy has hardly limited the opposition. Lots of people who live in the proposed district are furious--not just because landmarking limits what they can do with their property, but because they'll be facing these restrictions when people right across the street won't. "As a lover of old homes, I'd have more respect for the process if they just drew a giant square and put everything in it," says Kevin Kuster, who lives in the proposed district and has rehabbed two buildings there. "At least that would be more fair."

Kuster and other opponents of the proposed district are asking that Flores put it to a binding vote of local residents. Flores responds that a vote is unnecessary, because he's soliciting opinions at public meetings.

Many preservationists remain reluctant to criticize Flores because they don't want to say anything bad about anyone who's doing anything on behalf of preservation and because they know he's taking plenty of heat from preservation foes. Still, they know their silence might help accelerate the loss of old buildings. "I can see where this map will only lead to more demolitions as people just outside the district think, 'I better cash in now before they landmark me,'" one preservationist concedes. "You can end up losing a lot of good buildings that way."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Browarski; photos/A. Jackson.

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