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Land-use controversy in Lakeview: Do we need a high-rise retirement home on the edge of Lincoln Park



When the wrecking ball took down the Kellogg mansions at Oakdale and Commonwealth, Llani O'Connor felt not only a personal loss but a loss to the neighborhood.

"I would walk by those three homes and they always made me feel good--they were really something," O'Connor said with more than a touch of sadness in her voice. She was sitting in her cream-colored, fashionable living room in a high rise only a block from the former Kellogg site.

Looking out her windows, O'Connor can watch the never-ending stream of traffic on Sheridan Road. "I really hated to see those mansions go," she said. "They always reminded me of what this city must have been like before it got so crowded."

The Kellogg mansions did look out of place, beautiful as they were. Only two stories tall (they seemed grander sitting high on their sloping lot on Oakdale Avenue, overlooking Lincoln Park), they were dwarfed by the large surrounding apartment complexes. Their muted colors made the turquoise-blue tiles on the facade of their southern neighbor--Saint Joseph Hospital--seem even more garish.

They looked like something someone had left behind, forgotten in the rush to modern living. But what a pleasing sight to anyone strolling through Lincoln Park, or, like O'Connor, coming home to an antiseptic living space! Built in the 1920s, they were a handsome reminder of Chicago's past grandeur.

As O'Connor talked, she was flipping through her files on the Kellogg site; she pulled out old newspaper clippings, letters, reports. To O'Connor, the loss of the mansions in 1983 was regrettable; the proposed use of the now vacant lot is a call to arms.

"What this neighborhood doesn't need is another high rise," she said flatly.

Saint Joseph Hospital, in cooperation with Rescorp Development Inc., is planning to break ground this fall for a 37-story, $50 million complex of luxury retirement apartments. So far, the only thing that's been erected is a billboard with an artist's rendition of the finished product--a long base of shops and offices with a single residential tower.

"There are more people over the age of 65 in Chicago than in any city in the United States--and 25,000 in the immediate area surrounding Saint Joseph Hospital," said the hospital's president, Michael Connelly.

The new development will help some of the elderly stay out of nursing homes, he said. "Why shouldn't they be able to live in a nice apartment and lead a normal life?"

To which O'Connor retorted: "This is already the most crowded neighborhood in the city. Have you ever tried to find a parking space around here? Imagine what it will be like after that building goes up."

It's safe to say that this is more than a debate over the rights of the elderly. It's also a feud between old friends, and O'Connor might not be fighting so hard if she didn't feel so betrayed. "I always thought that Saint Joseph's was a good neighbor," she said, "although now I don't know what to say about them--except whatever I say wouldn't be very good."

While the Kellogg mansions stood, Saint Joseph Hospital rented two of them for office space and supported saving them. Harris Trust and Savings Bank, as trustee of the Helen L. Kellogg estate, wanted to tear down the houses and sell the cleared land. (Helen Kellogg was the daughter-in-law of the Kellogg cereal founder.) It was a seesaw battle. The city issued demolition permits in early 1979, and revoked them the following day. Later that year, the city down-zoned the site to prevent high-density use of it, but the Circuit Court of Cook County ruled the change an unconstitutional deprivation of property.

In 1981, the city designated the mansions Chicago landmarks; but Circuit Court judge James Murray not only nullified the designation but found the city liable for some $4.7 million in damages.

At this point, the city entered into a consent agreement with Harris and issued the demolition permits. The local alderman, Martin Oberman, petitioned Cook County Circuit Court for a rehearing in late 1981, but his appeal was denied. Appeals for a rehearing were also denied by the Illinois Supreme Court.

One reason for the city's turnabout, Oberman charged, was that Raymond F. Simon, then president of the Chicago Park District and an ally of Mayor Jane Byrne, was representing the Kellogg estate in its efforts to sell the property to developers. The asking price was $1.5 million.

Neighborhoods do evolve. Many historic buildings have been torn down to make room for much less.

After four years of battle, the mansions were demolished. Now the hospital stepped in, "sort of like a white knight," said Sister Juliana Kelly, then the president of Saint Joseph, and purchased the land. "We wanted to prevent overdevelopment of that property," she said, "especially after someone suggested putting a 70-story building there."

Saint Joseph Hospital is operated by the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, and it has been conscientious in its charities. Last year alone, the hospital provided $4 million worth of free care, Sister Juliana said, a significant part of which was devoted to the elderly.

"Once we purchased that property," she said, "we felt the hospital could do even more to service the community."

Last autumn the hospital announced plans to build a high rise. "It's exactly what we had fought against," O'Connor said. "Here was the hospital making this turnaround. We were amazed."

Amazed enough to form the Diversey/Belmont Harbor Neighborhood Alliance and pack a neighborhood meeting with hundreds of residents. ("We represent 6,000 people," said O'Connor. She explained that's the number of people who live nearby in 2 apartment houses and in 16 condos whose boards have endorsed the alliance.)

Sister Juliana, a soft-spoken woman, recalled the meeting. "Yes, I never expected that opposition," she said. "I didn't want to get into a confrontation."

"We expected some opposition from the very start," said Mark Schulte, vice president of Rescorp. "It was a controversial parcel, having been the Kellogg mansions. But we were surprised at the support we got."

Some members of the Lake View Citizens' Council who were at the meeting spoke in favor of the project. And an LVCC branch, Southeast Lakeview Neighbors, has formally endorsed it. "There is a serious need for this kind of development in the area," said Janina Schneider, president of the Neighbors. "The more people in this city age, the more they're going to need something like this."

"This" should prove to be one of the most elaborate elderly residential centers in the city. Rents (called service fees) will range from $1,300 to $2,800 a month. For that, residents will get one meal a day, weekly housekeeping, use of a small health club that includes a pool, a recreation area with a billiard room and a small auditorium, and membership in Saint Joseph's Center for Healthy Aging.

Each apartment is to be equipped with an emergency button connected to the hospital.

The waiting list to take an apartment in the building is already 400 names long, said Sister Juliana.

"In order to live in the building, you'll need a retirement income of at least $40,000 a year," said Llani O'Connor. "The hospital has been saying, 'We're the Daughters of Charity, we feed the hungry, clothe the poor.' But with those kinds of rents, they can't say it's a structure for the poor. It's a money-maker."

The dispute has obscured a serious issue--the need for more residential space for the elderly in this city. The rents Saint Joseph proposes are not wildly out of line in the marketplace. A recent check of the Lincoln Park Retirement Apartments, Fullerton and Southport, found only five vacancies, which administrators said wouldn't last long. Residents there pay between $975 and $1,350 a month for studios. They get three meals a day, utilities, maid service, and transportation. A studio in the Saint Joseph high rise will start at $1,300.

A few people who live near the Kellogg site complain that the new high rise will block their view of the lake--a view that supposedly justifies the high rents these residents are paying. But a casual survey found that most seem unconcerned, even unaware of the hospital's intentions (despite Llani O'Connor's claim of heavy support).

The plan unveiled last year by Rescorp and Saint Joseph projected 44 stories with 404 units. O'Connor and her group complained to the Chicago Plan Commission, to Bernie Hansen, alderman of the 44th Ward, in which redistricting has placed the Kellogg site, to State Representative John Cullerton, and Friends of the Parks.

The hospital made some concessions, scaling back the project to 37 stories and 344 units and enlarging the underground garage to provide 142 parking spaces. The Chicago Plan Commission approved the revised plans last fall. Seymour Vishny, attorney for O'Connor's group, acknowledged that the scaled-down version would be a little less obtrusive.

"It's still way out of scale," said Bill Baker, an architect and a member of the Diversey/Belmont Harbor Neighborhood Alliance. Baker, who lives on Wellington, is worried that his street will become a major thoroughfare.

He also thinks it's dangerous to build on land so close to the lake at a time when the lake--and the water table--is rising. "I'd hate to be living at 320 Oakdale or 2970 Lake Shore Drive. I think it's completely possible that those buildings will suffer some flooding damage directly related to the building of this retirement home."

From his office in Saint Joseph, Michael Connelly had a simple response: "That's hogwash. Let me assure you that all the necessary tests have been done on that property." Then, almost in a postscript, Connelly sighed. "What you've just asked points up an important aspect of this whole thing. Whenever we've had an objection from that group, we've tried to work with them. The truth is, we've had as many people in favor of this project as we've had against."

With plans to break ground this October, Connelly said he hopes to have the first residents moved in by early 1989. But perhaps that won't happen--not if Llani O'Connor gets hold of the waiting list.

It would seem the battle isn't over, yet.

As O'Connor flipped through her materials, she paused long enough to express another concern. "We have an agreement with the hospital. This is supposed to be a retirement home. It's supposed to be for people who aren't working, who need the services of Saint Joseph's.

"I'd love to see the ages of the people on their waiting list. I'll bet you'd find a lot of people who aren't near retirement interested in living there. And why not? It's going to be a luxury building."

During one of this summer's heat waves, as Lincoln Park attracted even greater than normal herds of people seeking the smallest breeze off Lake Michigan, a small, silver-haired woman, neatly dressed, was spotted leaving the park and walking over to the Kellogg lot.

She peered through the chain-link fence that surrounds it and stood there for a moment, just looking.

"Do you remember those homes?" she was asked.

"They were beautiful," the woman replied, her head shaking with the memory. "It was a shame to lose them. I grew up in the neighborhood and I remember them well."

Familiar with the hospital's plans, she was asked whether she would move into the retirement home once it was built. "Never!" she snapped. "I won't, but a lot of people will. A lot of people will want to say they're living where the Kellogg mansions used to be."

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

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