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The Monsters of East Village

The city is about to overhaul its zoning code for the first time in 47 years. But for some neighborhoods it's too little too late.



The first time Brian Roman laid eyes on his dream house, a well-kept brick cottage trimmed in rosebushes and clematis, it was awash in sunlight. When the day streamed through the wood-frame windows, the humble 125-year-old workman's dwelling felt like an Apollonian retreat.

Roman, a molecular biologist in the department of physiology and biophysics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and his wife, Laura, a school psychologist, also liked the sleepy East Village block where the house was located, with its massive old oaks and moss-carpeted parkways. The proprietor of the Happy Village Tavern across the street sold hot dogs and homemade pierogi out of a little side window in the warm months and handed out biscuits to the neighborhood dogs.

That was four years ago. It didn't take long for their paradise to get paved. "The day we closed on the deal my wife said, 'Let's go drive past our new house,'" Roman recalls. They drove up the 1000 block of Wolcott and found a bulldozer there, razing the cottage next door. In a matter of months two three-story brick-and-cinder-block condo buildings had risen in its place. The shade tree that had stood on the double lot had been taken down. The Romans lost half their sunlight and gained a southern view of a blank gray wall.

Three years later the century-old single-family house on the double lot to the north was sold to developers. It came down in a matter of days. "It was solid brick, in great condition," Roman says, "but they could make so much money on new development that they were willing to pay $375,000 for a building that's plowed under." The developer, Jarek Pietrzyk, a former general contractor who's built seven multiunit buildings in East Village, began construction on a six-unit condo building more than twice as tall as the Romans' cottage. Their next-door neighbors can now look down through the Romans' skylight into their bathroom.

Roman says he begged Pietrzyk to use frosted glass on the side of the building facing their cottage so that he and his wife wouldn't feel like they were living in a fishbowl.

Pietrzyk wouldn't do it. "You can't build a house without windows," he says. "When you live in the city you don't have privacy from your neighbors."

As he had done when the building on the other side went up, Roman hired a structural engineer to come by and make sure his house would be OK during the construction. The engineer took pictures and gave the Romans suggestions on how to protect their property from all the heavy equipment.

But with just five feet between the cottage and the new building, the Romans' home was still damaged. The masons spilled mortar on the brickwork, and the house and the siding on the garage were gouged. "They tore up our sidewalk, exposed our foundation," Roman says. At first Pietrzyk refused to fix the damage, other than to try to power-wash the mortar off the brick, which Roman says damaged it further.

The Romans' experiences had already prompted them to join the East Village Association, the community's longtime resident advocacy group, and last year Brian was elected president of the organization. In the fall he went to Manny Flores, the new First Ward alderman, for help. Flores had Pietrzyk sign an agreement to either repair or pay for the damage by December 2003.

December came and went, and still there were no repairs. When Pietrzyk applied for a permit to build more condos in the neighborhood in March, Flores held the permit on the condition that Pietrzyk make good on the agreement.

Pietrzyk paid up in April. But he accuses Roman of running to the alderman to fix things he should have handled through his home owner's insurance. "Basically, the alderman made me do these things," says Pietrzyk. "He says he will hold the permit as long as we don't make Brian Roman happy."

Although remortaring the house would cost $2,500, Roman says, he asked Pietrzyk for less than that--$1,053, to be exact--because the north side of the house would have had to be remortared in a year or two anyway. "[Pietrzyk's] not a bad guy," Roman says. "He's one of the better developers in the neighborhood."

Fact is, no amount of repairs will prevent the Romans' house from looking like Ant Man about to be smooshed by Godzillas. On one side of the cottage a row of six tall new condos has gone up; on the other, two. The old trees are gone, and there's no place for the condo residents to put their garbage cans--the new three-car garages eat up their back lots all the way to the narrow alley.

Last year Roman counted 30 lots with craters in the ground in the half-mile-square area around his house--all for new condo buildings going up. "That's 90 new living units in a very small area, and upwards of 200 new people with two more cars," he says.

Teardowns have been happening so fast, he adds, that the EVA hasn't been able to complete a statistical study of development in the neighborhood--the numbers become obsolete before the group can finish the task.

"It happens at a tremendous pace, and it doesn't let up," says Roman. "Money is driv-ing everything. It's not like, 'This is the best thing for the neighborhood, these are pretty buildings.'"

Roman says he's about to give up on protecting what's left of his block. "It's beat me down," he says. "Somebody else in EVA said, 'It's like a Wild West out here.' I mean, there's no rules." Other blocks in East Village are more historically intact. Maybe his group--which in the past year has gone from about 30 to 100 members--can focus their energies on saving those, he says.

In November the nonprofit advocacy group Preservation Chicago named East Village--the whole thing--one of Chicago's seven most endangered historic places. Its press release likened the area to World War II London: residents "start each day not knowing whose block will be hit, or if a neighbor's house will be reduced to rubble."

In particular the section of East Village where Roman lives--the blocks bordered by Ashland, Damen, Chicago, and Division--is an island of unrestricted zoning, surrounded on all sides by neighborhoods with more restrictions on development. Chunks of Ukrainian Village and Wicker Park--from Damen to Leavitt and Haddon to Cortez--are landmarked, while parts south and east are zoned R-3, a classification that allows only single-family homes covering no more than 90 percent of a lot's total square footage.

In last year's aldermanic race, Manny Flores promised residents of the First Ward--which includes parts of Bucktown and Wicker Park in addition to Ukrainian Village and East Village--more say on zoning issues if elected. A lawyer in the Cook County state's attorney's office, Flores grew up in Du Page County and moved to East Village only in 2002. But he went on to defeat two-term incumbent Jesse Granato--who'd faced closely contested elections in each of his previous races--in a runoff, despite opposition from the mayor and the machine, which leafleted every doorknob in the ward for Granato in the weeks before the election.

Now Flores, who took office last May, would like to downzone East Village to a classification that would limit building height to 35 feet and allow no more than two units per lot. To construct anything larger, a developer would have to appear before a neighborhood zoning committee that would then make a recommendation to the alderman. (The power to grant a zoning variance lies with the City Council, but the council traditionally votes with the alderman on zoning matters.)

Flores says he has closely monitored the progress of the area bordered by Wabansia, North, Western, and Leavitt, a Bucktown neighborhood that's been downzoned from multiunit to single-family housing. "Despite that rezoning, there has been continued development, the community has seen a higher quality of life, and the values of the property have continued to go up," he says.

"The East Village has seen an incredible amount of change. The number of teardowns is the highest in the city. While development is good, it has to be thoughtful. It has to have some things that are important to communities--things like maintaining the architectural integrity, a commitment to maintaining diversity, providing a neighborhood that really does feel like a neighborhood, and really looking at quality of life."

There's a slight complication: the zoning classification Flores seeks, known as R-3.5, doesn't exist yet. It's part of the city's overhaul of its 47-year-old zoning code, which is due to be voted on at the City Council meeting this Wednesday, May 26. So in April, Flores declared a moratorium on new development in East Village until the revised zoning book comes out and a study of development in the area can be completed.

Not surprisingly, the hold on building permits has developers up in arms. Carol Mrowka, a realtor who's leading the antidownzoning faction, did a tax analysis of three streets in the area to make the case to Flores that downzoning would deaden the steadily gentrifying neighborhood. Her study shows that new construction brings the city far more property tax revenue than historic brick cottages and two-flats. A 113-year-old two-story brick building on the 1000 block of Winchester, for example, generated $5,418 in property tax revenue last year. A five-year-old two-unit brick building on the same block brought in $15,463. Developments that squeeze three, four, or more units on a spot where one cottage once stood are even more lucrative for the city. A nine-unit building at 900 N. Paulina generated almost $61,000 in property tax revenue last year.

"It's become apparent that this area has been very beneficial to the city," Mrowka says. "Let's face it--the city needs more money. And it seems to me that downzoning would stop this."

Mrowka says she has a vested interest in East Village because she's also a resident. "I've been there long enough to see how wonderfully gentrification works," she says.

Sandy Gonzalez, a lifelong resident of East Village and owner of four residential buildings there, also hates the idea of downzoning. Now in her 40s, she remembers the 1970s and '80s as a time when the houses were in disrepair, the neighbor kids belonged to gangs, and she was afraid to step outside at night. If anything, Gonzalez would relax the zoning, not tighten it. Older buildings stand on three of her properties, and she wants to sell them as teardowns.

"People who have stuck it out, lived through the good and the bad, should be able to reap the benefits," she says. "If it means a profit, then why not?"

Jonathan Fine, the president of Preservation Chicago and a resident of the neighborhood for the past ten years, says that sounds like money talking.

"Look, I've heard 5,000 times the argument about the little old lady retiring who wants to make as much money on her property as she can, and if anyone dares downzone, they will take her money away," he says. "Zoning is not an urban retirement program; it's a land-use and planning tool. If zoning were designed for longtime owners to maximize their profits, why not zone it so she could build a ten-story skyscraper with an oil well in the backyard?"

East Village is one of several neighborhoods hit especially hard by the shortcomings of the city's old zoning code, written after World War II, when bureaucrats predicted an influx of new residents and not enough housing to hold them. To encourage a large amount of new construction in a short time, they zoned with a light touch.

"The zoning didn't quite match the existing homes," says Heather Campbell, a researcher studying development patterns in East Village for the nonprofit Metropolitan Planning Council. A sliver of land with a cottage on it might actually be zoned for a three-flat.

The postwar boom never came, but the overzoning remained in place through decades of citywide decline. By the 80s and 90s, when people who'd fled to the suburbs started moving in the other direction, the city was stuck with an outdated set of laws that had never really been put to the test. Redbrick-and-cinder-block towers sprouted up on block after block.

It took the city a few years to realize the extent of the problem, and a couple more to actually assemble a zoning revision committee. Once the revision began in 2000, things began moving fairly swiftly, says Campbell, noting that large U.S. cities such as Boston and Seattle have taken ten years or more to rewrite their zoning codes.

But for near-downtown residential neighborhoods like East Village, it was too late in the game. The East Village real estate boom took off during the tenure of Granato, who represented the First Ward from 1995 to 2003. Granato lost face with preservation-minded residents early on, when he threw his support behind a plan to demolish the historic Goldblatt's building on Chicago just west of Ashland to make way for the parking lot of a proposed Delray Farms produce market. The EVA and other groups fought so hard to save the building that Granato changed his tack at the last minute and supported their quest to landmark it. But when Delray Farms sued the city for withholding their demolition permit, he gave up the fight. ("We tried everything, and it didn't work," he was quoted as saying in a 1997 Reader article.) The building was finally saved when Delray Farms accepted a $30 million purchase offer from the city.

Despite the lip service he paid in the case of Goldblatt's, in 2001 alone Granato supported the easing of residential zoning restrictions in developers' favor in 23 spots in his ward, according to City Council proceedings. Rather than making a move to downzone the neighborhood, Granato upzoned select East Village properties to allow for more density, using even the R-5 classification almost unheard-of in residential areas.

Jonathan Fine says development started to get out of control in the neighborhood in 1998, when he began seeing not just "substandard buildings that needed to be demolished" coming down but also solid 100-year-old brick houses.

"That is what alarmed us, and it truly became a preservation issue," says Fine. "The only reason they started targeting the well-built historic buildings was because the zoning was so high they could actually realize a profit tearing down a good building."

No one--not the alderman, the city, the EVA, or the Metropolitan Planning Council--currently has in hand a definitive count of teardowns or a percentage of new construction in the neighborhood. But a walk down the Romans' block takes you past 14 new buildings and 25 built circa 1890. A more historically intact block like the 1100 block of Winchester has only one new condo building to 30 turn-of-the-century residences.

At Flores's request the MPC has begun a three-month study, based on which it will make planning and zoning recommendations for East Village to the alderman and the city. But the MPC's first meeting, held May 11, left some EVA members concerned. "Goal: To establish a compromise zoning position for the area," said the flyer announcing the forum. "We don't need compromise," Roman remarked afterward. "What we need is appropriate zoning."

EVA member Doug Rappe, who lives in a single-family home on West Thomas, agreed, adding that he thinks Flores needs to step up and be a leader, not a peacemaker. "Otherwise," he said, "you might as well just ask everyone what they want their zoning to be on their property, give it to them, and be done with it."

Tom Smith, the zoning department official who's been charged with conducting a survey of East Village to determine whether downzoning is appropriate, acknowledges that the neighborhood has a "weird mix."

"Everything was built either in the 1890s or the 1990s," he says. "When you build in a different time period, you end up with a lot of variability."

Smith considers that a good thing. "If you lived in a neighborhood where every building was exactly the same--height and density and parking and bulk--it wouldn't be Chicago," he says. "Our neighborhoods have single-family, two-flats, bigger corner buildings. When you walk down the street, there's some bigger buildings, some smaller buildings. I think that's what people actually like about Chicago neighborhoods."

But John Betancur, a UIC urban planning and public policy professor who's been researching Chicago communities since 1979, says that the patchwork development in East Village points to a larger problem with the way Chicago is run, with each alderman having the final say on projects in his ward--not the city's planning department and certainly not everyday citizens who live in the neighborhood.

"I don't think the city of Chicago plans," he says. "They generally don't plan because the way things work is very much at the mercy of politics. Every decision is very much ad hoc. If that's the case, why develop a plan?"

The master plans that the city does have in place or near completion concentrate mainly on downtown neighborhoods--the South Loop, the West Loop, the near west side. There are a near south plan and a central area plan on the books, but nothing for East Village, or Roscoe Village, or Rogers Park.

"Chicago was one of the first cities in the United States with a master plan," says Fine. "But that plan was never extended into the neighborhoods. It was only executed downtown for the most part."

Fine sees the city operating "like 50 small fiefdoms. The aldermen have almost complete control with what goes on in their ward," he says. "It works wonderfully when you need a stop sign or a speed bump in front of your school." But for projects that affect quality of life on a larger scale--changing traffic patterns, the amount of pollution, the aesthetics of an entire area--"there are far too many important decisions being made on the sly. You can't throw a dart on a map and put a Home Depot there. That's how it's been, and it's got to stop."

Pete Scales, the spokesman for the city's planning department, says the city does have a tentative plan for East Village--and it's to downzone about ten scattered blocks in the neighborhood north of Chicago to the R-3.5 classification.

"These are the particular blocks that fit that designation," says Scales. "There were other blocks where the community wanted the downzoning, but those blocks were nonconforming for R-3.5"--meaning that the extent of new construction had already changed the look of the blocks from single-family houses and two-flats to taller multiunit buildings.

Roman believes that by putting the moratorium on development 11 months after taking office Flores has done the best he can to slow the pace of development. But the moratorium can't change what's already come down and gone up.

He stands on bare earth where the rosebushes used to be before the condo buildings blocked the sunlight from his yard. He doesn't see the neighborhood as a place to grow old anymore. The Romans might move in the next year or so--heck, they might even sell to an opportunist who would tear down the cottage and erect a towering gray box.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Joeff Davis.

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