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Property wars in Lincoln Park: neighbors accuse builder of overstepping his bounds; he says it's all a mistake

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Nine months have passed since developer Alex Anagnostopoulos got a city permit to make some minor repairs to his Wilton Avenue home, and his neighbors in Lincoln Park are still trying to figure out what happened.

Anagnostopoulos got the permit, but he didn't limit himself to minor repairs. Instead, he built a large three-story addition onto the back of his two-flat at 2617 N. Wilton, an addition for which he has neither the required zoning nor the proper city building permit. Now the city wants to demolish the addition, and Anagnostopoulos is in a nasty dispute with his neighbor.

"This is an act of sheer gall," says Alderman Edwin Eisendrath, in whose ward (the 43rd) the house is located. "Alex built his addition even though he didn't have a permit. When he was told to stop--and he was repeatedly told to stop--he kept on building. This is not the story of some little guy who didn't know the rules. He's a professional developer. He knew what he was doing all along."

Anagnostopoulos, who owns DePaul Properties, a Lincoln Park-based company, concedes he's made a few mistakes. But he says his opponents have blown them out of proportion. "I'm not a bad guy. Fifteen years I've been in this business and nothing like this has ever happened. They're against me. The alderman's against me; my neighbor's against me; the local community group's against me. They treat me like dirt. Why? I don't know. It's an injustice. I didn't do anything that was so wrong."

The story begins in October 1990, when Anagnostopoulos bought the ramshackle two-flat on Wilton for $240,000. In November he applied for and received a permit from the Building Department to repair the rear stairwell, replace some windows, and fix the downspouts. But within a few weeks it was clear both to his neighbors and to the local community group, the Wrightwood Neighbors Conservation Association, that Anagnostopoulos was doing much more than that.

"They were pouring concrete to put in a foundation--I hardly call that minor repairs," says Michael Realmuto, who owns the property next door. "They were building an addition. And this wasn't just any old back porch; it was a three-story addition. I was concerned that it would blot the sun from my backyard, which we use a lot."

Realmuto called Eisendrath, who notified the Building Department, which revoked the permit. That was on January 3. A few weeks later, Anagnostopoulos's architect, Michael Coan, applied for and received another permit--this one to build the very addition whose construction was already under way. That permit was revoked when city officials discovered that Anagnostopoulos's addition would be closer to Realmuto's property line than zoning law permitted.

"According to the zoning law, you can only be 2.6 feet from a property line," explains Rob Buono, who was one of two legislative aides Eisendrath assigned to the case. "If you're closer than that you have to ask the city's zoning administrator for an exception. If he turns you down, you can go to the Zoning Board of Appeals for a variance. It's rather routine; any builder would know the procedure."

But Anagnostopoulos didn't go to the zoning administrator, at least not right away, Realmuto and Eisendrath say. He kept right on building his addition, much to the consternation of Realmuto and several other neighbors. It wasn't that they disliked Anagnostopoulos. "Alex is as cute as a button," says Realmuto. They were just, well, a little suspicious.

"You hear all these horror stories about guys who abuse the building-permit process," says Realmuto. "Let's say someone wants to build a garage that would require a zoning variance. If he wants to avoid the hassle of a ZBA hearing, he'll tell the Building Department, 'I'd like a permit to fix my windows.' They would give him a permit and that would be it. Who's going to bother him? You see the permit and you'll figure the project is legit. No one's going to read the permit's fine print. From what I hear, stuff like this happens all the time."

Anagnostopoulos says he would never try anything underhanded. Nevertheless, work on the addition continued through the winter, Realmuto says.

"I'd wonder--will anything make him stop?" says Realmuto. "We'd call the police and the cops would tell him to stop. For a while he would stop. Then almost as soon as the cops had left he'd start all over again."

Not true, Anagnostopoulos counters. "I never worked on the building after the police told me to stop, never," he says. "Why would I do that? That would be wrong. That would be against the law. You could go to jail for that."

But Realmuto says he has pictures of your people working on the addition throughout the winter and into the spring, I say.

"He is mistaken," says Anagnostopoulos. "We built that addition in a week, maybe two, I can't remember. We haven't worked on it for five months."

And why didn't you accurately state your building plans in your first permit request?

"That was a mistake."

You mean you mistook two projects as vastly different as repairing a porch and building a three-story addition?

"OK, so it was a big mistake."

And what about your miscalculation of the side-yard dimensions?

"Another mistake," says Anagnostopoulos. "But I was only off by less than a foot. Should they hang me for that?"

The city's retribution wasn't as harsh as that--on March 26 it ordered Anagnostopoulos to stop work on the building. After that Anagnostopoulos applied to the ZBA for a variance and hired a lawyer, John Pikarski, to handle his application. A hearing was held on June 28. Realmuto, Eisendrath, and the Wrightwood Neighbors Conservation Association showed up to oppose the variance, and the ZBA established that his addition was in fact nine inches from Realmuto's house, not 1.5 feet as he had stipulated in his ZBA application.

"Another mistake," says Anagnostopoulos. "OK, no one's perfect."

Once that mistake was revealed, ZBA chairman Joseph Spingola suggested that Anagnostopoulos withdraw his application, which he did.

Since then Realmuto and Anagnostopoulos have met once face-to-face to try to settle their differences. That was on July 1 in Eisendrath's office; Anagnostopoulos, his architect, his lawyer, Buono, and Realmuto attended.

"Realmuto said he would compromise and support the side-yard variance if Alex removed the top story of the addition, but Alex wouldn't go along with that," says Buono. "Pikarski told Realmuto that he should support the addition because the 2600 block of Wilton is probably the ugliest block in the 43rd Ward and the addition would make it look better. I reprimanded Pikarski for saying that--I mean, who the hell is he to tell people their property is ugly? After that there wasn't much talk about compromise."

Meanwhile Realmuto's litany of complaints against Anagnostopoulos seems to grow longer by the day. "It's been awful since he bought that building," he says. "In January he put scaffolding up on my property. It was huge; I couldn't possibly take it down myself. I'd say, 'Alex, please take it down.' He'd say, 'OK, I'll get to it.' But he never did. He finally took it down on June 27, which, coincidentally, was the day before the ZBA hearing.

"He also tore down my fence. I came home from work one day and it was gone. I said, 'Alex, where's my fence?' He said, 'I had to take it down, but don't worry, I'll replace it with an even better one.' He did put up a fence, but it's a piece of crap. He also broke my sidewalk, which he has still not repaired, and his workers are always trespassing on our lawn. Worst of all is that awful, three-story piece of garbage hanging over our house. We used to be able to look out of our window and see blue sky and sun, and now we see that hideous thing."

On that final point, Anagnostopoulos vehemently disagrees. "The addition isn't ugly; it looks good," he says. "It looks a lot better than [Realmuto's] house. That's ugly. That guy should be improving his house and not worrying about mine. He's a jerk. He should thank me for improving the neighborhood."

And what about Realmuto's fence?

"What's he complaining about? I built him a new one."

And the scaffolding?

"We couldn't take it down because the city made us stop all construction. They wouldn't let us do any work, remember? If [Realmuto] hears a cat out here he thinks it's a worker and he calls the cops."

That explanation draws a caustic laugh from Realmuto. "Let me get this straight: it's OK for him to illegally put up scaffolding but it's wrong to illegally take it down," Realmuto says. "Oh, that's precious."

For the moment, Realmuto, Eisendrath, and the other concerned neighbors apparently have the upper hand. Anagnostopoulos can't complete his addition without replacing the scaffolding, and he can't do that without returning to Realmuto's property. "There's no way, absolutely no way, I'm going to let him do that," Realmuto says.

Beyond that, Building Department commissioner Dan Weil has asked the city to take Anagnostopoulos to court in an attempt to have a judge order the addition demolished.

"They can't do that," Anagnostopoulos protests. "We can work something out. How about if I move my addition further back from [Realmuto's] property? Let's be reasonable. Why go on fighting? Let's be friends."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.

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