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Urbanism battles suburbanism in Jefferson Park

Fed up with hostility towards walkable, transit-friendly development, newer residents launch their own community group.

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Jefferson Park residents have clashed over development around the neighborhood’s transit center. - ANDREA BAUER
  • Andrea Bauer
  • Jefferson Park residents have clashed over development around the neighborhood’s transit center.

There's a culture war going on in Jefferson Park, a middle-class community in Chicago's northwest-side bungalow belt that's home to many city and county workers. Some longtime residents want the neighborhood to remain an enclave of low-slung houses and two-flats, where driving and parking are prioritized. Others, many of them newer arrivals, want to see the community become more urban, with more apartments near the Jefferson Park Transit Center, and better conditions for walking and biking.

"I choose to live here because I like the way it is," wrote Carlene Blumenthal, a board member of the conservative Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association. "I am a proud NIMBY."

Indeed, in recent years, the neighborhood association has spearheaded "Not in My Back Yard"-type opposition to several proposed multiunit buildings and sustainable transportation improvements.

Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association president Bob Bank - FACEBOOK
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  • Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association president Bob Bank

"This is a semisuburban area," recently elected board president Bob Bank told me. "We'd like nothing [taller] than what's the current zoning in downtown Jefferson Park, mostly four stories or less." The 56-year-old AT&T employee and his wife have lived and raised their three now-adult children in Jefferson Park since 1983.

On the progressive side of this battle are people like 34-year-old transportation planner Ryan Richter. Richter grew up in Jefferson Park and moved back in 2009 after buying a house, where he lives with his wife and two young daughters. He joined the neighborhood association in January, then ran against Bank in September to be its new board president. (He didn't win.)

"The JPNA doesn't see how important density is for taking advantage of our rich transit resources," Richter argues. The transit center, located just northwest of the Lawrence/Milwaukee commercial district, is served by the Blue Line, Metra, and 12 bus routes. The neighborhood association has fought several plans for development near the station.

"There's no vision there," Richter griped. "They're against everything, but they're not for anything."

Jefferson Park Forward founder Ryan Richter - ANDREA BAUER
  • Andrea Bauer
  • Jefferson Park Forward founder Ryan Richter

The neighborhood association has also been a constant irritant to 45th Ward alderman John Arena, who himself is a thorn in Mayor Emanuel's side as a leader of City Council's Progressive Caucus.

Like Richter, Arena has argued that transit-friendly housing and walkable, bikeable streets are crucial for revitalizing a neighborhood blighted by vacant lots and empty storefronts. "We are blessed with tremendous access to public transit," 45th Ward chief of staff Owen Brugh told DNAinfo's Heather Cherone last year. "We should play to our strengths."

This ideological clash came to a head during the September board election. Bank, who had previously made unsuccessful bids for alderman and committeeman, says he ran for president at the behest of board members who feared the organization was being taken over by urbanists like Richter. Bank won by a vote of 60 to 27.

Richter has since launched a new group called Jefferson Park Forward. "A lot of people were disgusted with the JPNA and wanted an outlet for positive change," he said. "Many of them are relatively new to the community and somewhat younger, and they want more bike facilities, walkable urban spaces, and independent businesses."

"We also want to do the traditional things a neighborhood association should do to build community, like putting on events and supporting local merchants," Richter added. "The JPNA isn't doing that because they're so focused on opposing the alderman." He added the association also has a longstanding beef against developer Demetrius "Jimmy" Kozonis, whose company Mega Realty recently proposed two mixed-use buildings near the station.

Bank traces the neighborhood association's hatred of Kozonis to a 2002 real estate deal. Arena's predecessor, Patrick Levar, and the planning department agreed the city would acquire buildings on the 5200 block of West Lawrence via eminent domain, then bulldoze them so Mega could build a seven-story, 132-unit condo building, the Reader's Ben Joravsky reported.

After residents rebelled against the condo plan, Levar pulled his support. By that time, the city had already committed to buying the properties for $1.4 million. As a result, the entire south side of the block is now empty lots, save for Sportif Importer bike shop, whose owner sued the city.

Richter said it's understandable the neighborhood association distrusts Kozonis. However, he doesn't think that justifies the group's knee-jerk opposition to recent Mega proposals. "People should be able to look at development skeptically but objectively," he said.

"There’s no vision there. They’re against everything, but they’re not for anything."

—Transportation planner Ryan Richter­

And that's not the only recent issue to divide old- and new-school Jeff Parkers.

In January 2014, the city's transportation department recommended a "road diet" for Milwaukee Avenue, from the transit center north to Elston, a stretch plagued by speeding and crashes. Arena voiced support for the project, which would have calmed traffic by converting two of the four travel lanes to protected bike lanes.

Bank, who bikes occasionally (and wears a helmet in his Facebook photo), said his organization was neutral on the issue. However, JPNA ally John Garrido, an attorney and police officer who narrowly lost to Arena in the 2011 aldermanic election, showed up at a hearing with a thick stack of paper, announcing it contained 4,000 signatures against the road diet.

Partly due to Garrido's grandstanding, Arena abandoned the idea. He defeated Garrido in this year's aldermanic race with 53.8 percent of the vote. "This victory is a nail in the coffin of the old way of doing things," he told DNAinfo.

45th Ward alderman John Arena speaks with constituents at a Jefferson Park Forward event Monday. - ANDREA BAUER
  • Andrea Bauer
  • 45th Ward alderman John Arena speaks with constituents at a Jefferson Park Forward event Monday.

The association was anything but neutral on Arena's proposal for a "Pedestrian Street" designation for the Milwaukee and Lawrence business strips. The board voted unanimously against the plan in October 2014.

The designation blocks the creation of car-centric land uses like strip malls by banning new driveways. Building façades must be adjacent to the sidewalk, and parking lots must be located in back.

Bank said the association actually favored banning curb cuts. However, the group opposed the P-Streets because of the city's new transit-oriented development ordinance.

That law drops parking requirements for buildings within a certain distance of train stations. Since that distance is doubled on P-Streets, the association feared the designation would create a parking crunch.

The City Council approved Arena's proposal that November. Brugh says the P-Street designation positively influenced the design of a recently approved Mega project dubbed Jefferson Park Gateway.

This complex will feature 39 apartments and 11 storefronts on part of the land the city cleared in the early 2000s. "It will reconstruct the urban street wall that existed before those buildings were demolished," Brugh said.

While the Gateway property is a six-minute walk from the station, it's also located next to the Kennedy, so Mega is opting for 62 parking spots. Banks says the JPNA doesn't object to the Gateway project's four-story design.

However, the group is angry that the city is selling Kozonis the land—worth $530,000 according to the planning department—for just $1. Arena argued the deal is worth it, because the building is expected to generate $175,000 annually in taxes.

Mega Realty’s proposed 12-story tower would be built just southeast of the transit center. - MEGA REALTY
  • Mega Realty
  • Mega Realty’s proposed 12-story tower would be built just southeast of the transit center.

The association is also fighting another Mega proposal for a 12-story structure on a vacant lot just southeast of the station. The project would feature 96 apartments, eight shops, and 265 garage spaces. Some spots would be used by tenants and customers at the adjacent, Mega-owned Veterans Square Mall and office tower, plus Copernicus Center concertgoers.

"Most people in the neighborhood are against this [project]," said Bank. "It's hideous."

Richter supports building apartments next to the station, although he feels the plan has "way too much parking." Arena has said he'd be glad to swap one of the floors of parking for another 16 apartments.

The association's opposition to multiunit buildings isn't just motivated by their grudge against Mega. Last year the group helped stall a proposal by American Colony Homes for two five-story apartment buildings with 48 units just north of the transit center.

The association also derailed an Arena-backed effort to create a Special Service Area, where a tax is levied for business strip improvements. After members challenged the signatures on the local chamber of commerce's SSA petition, 15 were found to be invalid. Last week, Arena withdrew his support. "It was blatant fraud," Bank claims.

Brugh blamed the SSA snafu on the city's "flawed" signature protocol, and called the fraud accusation "overheated rhetoric."

Richter says he decided to form Jefferson Park Forward as a response to the unrelenting negativity of the association. "Unlike the JPNA, we're not focused on being a watchdog for the alderman," he says.

JPF held their first meeting on November 17 at Fischman Liquors. Over 60 people attended, including Arena and 19th District state rep Robert Martwick. According to the minutes, some of the ideas discussed included creating better public spaces, bringing Divvy to the neighborhood, and "making the area more about people than cars."

While Richter says he's not interested in being a watchdog, Bank went so far as to call him a lapdog. "Jefferson Park Forward is a fake group created by Arena to manufacture support for tall buildings," he said. "Like his master, Ryan makes the false claim our area needs more people to make the business area thrive. Apparently, they're willing to put more people in Jefferson Park by any means necessary."

Richter chuckled at the Malcolm X reference. "Bob doesn't care for me and we ran a tough campaign," he responded. "Jefferson Park Forward is trying to do something different than the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association, which, as you can see, is hopelessly mired in political paranoia, rather than actually being engaged in building our community." v

John Greenfield edits the transportation-news website Streetsblog Chicago.


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