There was a time when animals ran wild in the grassy, tree-lined fields near John Gora's far-northwest-side home. That was 30-some years ago, when the Gora family first moved in and before most of those fields made way for factories, houses, condominiums, and shopping malls.
Until recently that small section of the city, known as Dunning, just west of the intersection of Irving Park Road and Narragansett Avenue, was one of Chicago's last remaining stretches of undeveloped acreage. But these days it's a boomtown.
"This is like living in Schaumburg back in the 60s--they're just building and building," says Gora. "When have they had enough development? When will they stop? There will be no trees, no birds, no nothing. It's breaking my heart."
Most recently proposed was a three-building, five-story 150-unit condominium complex earmarked for the 6500 block of West Natchez, one block south of Irving Park. Gora and his sister Nancy are joined in opposition to this proposal by Alderman Thomas Allen, of the 38th Ward, and the Austin-Irving Community Council, the area's largest neighborhood group.
Their alliance is tenuous. The Goras are vehemently opposed to almost any construction and their boisterous name calling has offended many neighbors who might otherwise agree with them. Members of the Austin-Irving council, in contrast, have been meeting with the project's developer, Michael Pontarelli, in the hopes that he'll scale back the size of his development.
Things got stormy at a meeting sponsored by Allen last year to discuss Pontarelli's proposal, attended by about 200 people. "Pontarelli said he was going to put in a beautiful pond near the complex," says John Gora. "And this one man, who must have been a Pontarelli plant, said, "Oh, gee, Mr. Pontarelli, my mother would like that. Could she go fishing there?' I called out, "What are you gonna fish for, dead bodies?"'
Gora maintains that bodies are buried on that land. "I've seen bones around there: hip bones and femurs and stuff," he says. "That was a potter's field for the indigent." At one point during the meeting he held up a bag containing a bone he claims he found on the site to dramatize his point.
Though they don't express themselves with the same sense of dramatics, Gora's neighbors share his fear that without proper planning by the city the area will become polluted and congested. "It's nice that our neighborhood is considered attractive," says Pat Milach, a member of the Austin-Irving council. "But we have to watch what's happening here to make sure we're not overrun with high density."
At the corner of Irving and Narragansett, for instance, is a massive shopping center that's already the source of traffic congestion. Behind that, running from Irving to Montrose along Narragansett, is an enormous, mostly undeveloped triangular plot of land that was once home to a state mental health facility. Several condominium complexes and a new campus for Wright Junior College have been built there within the last few years. The rest of the land is earmarked for residential and industrial use.
Pontarelli's site, across from a group of industrial buildings, is zoned for low-rise residential development--which means he needs a zoning change to build the complex. But Allen says he will fight any zoning change so long as neighbors remain opposed to Pontarelli's plan. Without the alderman's OK, it's unlikely Pontarelli could get the city to give him the change. So earlier this year Pontarelli initiated a series of meetings with the Austin-Irving council.
"We wanted him to build single-family homes there, and he made it clear that he wouldn't," says Al Opitz, president of the council. "After that, the issue was how many condos."
At a session in May, Pontarelli suggested he might reduce the number of units in the complex to between 80 and 100. "We would like to reach an accommodation with the residents," says John Thomas, Pontarelli's vice president of development. "We're willing to work with them. I think that's appealing to most of them. Most of the time they don't get a chance to help design a project."
Thomas says the complex will be marketed to senior citizens. "Our market is empty-nesters," says Thomas. "We're talking about prices of between $120,000 to $160,000." He said he doesn't feel the area is in danger of being overdeveloped. "The key is proper planning. We can accommodate storm water with on-site detention areas. We do that in the suburbs. As for traffic, most of these problems wouldn't happen with better planning by the city."
Members of the Austin-Irving Community Council say they began the negotiation sessions with trepidation. "With Alderman Allen's support we know we would win the zoning battle at the city level," says council member Laura Gomez. "But what happens if Pontarelli appeals that decision to the circuit court?"
Gomez says she put that question to several zoning experts, and their response was not encouraging. "I was told that the courts might be sympathetic to Pontarelli because the area around the site is a hodgepodge of different zoning classifications. We'd be better off if it was all residentially zoned. But you have industrial next to manufacturing next to residential. And that works in Pontarelli's favor, 'cause he could argue that his condos would not be that out of touch with the area's zoning."
The council discussed the matter at its June 1 meeting, attended by 80 residents. After running through other business, including several complaints about sewer and traffic problems, Gomez updated the group on what the experts had told her about the zoning matter. "We could win at the city level and then lose on appeal," she said. "Sorry to give you such disappointing news."
Allen concurred with her analysis. "Does [Pontarelli] have to go through the alderman? Yes," said Allen. "Is the alderman God? No."
By then it was clear that many members of the organization would grudgingly accept the condominium complex as long as Pontarelli reduced the number of units. But not the Goras.
"Why are we ruling out single-family homes?" demanded Nancy Gora. "There's a desperate need for single-family homes."
Pontarelli said he won't build them, someone replied.
"Who cares what he says," said Nancy Gora.
Then John Gora, unable to contain his wrath, erupted with a diatribe against Allen's predecessor, the late Thomas Cullerton. It was Cullerton, said Gora, who encouraged so many zoning changes in the neighborhood.
"There should have been better planning," he said, directing his wrath at Allen. "Your father-in-law let them get away with it."
Allen responded that Cullerton had not been his father-in-law. "He is too," said John Gora. "You married his daughter."
Allen denied that he had married Cullerton's daughter, and then told Gora: "You better keep it civil here or I'm walking." (Allen's sister is married to Cullerton's son.)
A little later in the meeting Gora got involved in another argument, this time with a resident who said he had been living in the area for 42 years--"longer than you."
Opitz tried to steer the subject back to the main topic. "If we talk to [Pontarelli], we might win some concessions," he said.
Another resident, a senior citizen who lives in a nearby condo complex developed by Pontarelli, defended condominium dwellers. "My husband and I used to own a nice home, just like you," she said. "But it got to be too much for us to care for and so we had to move. We have beautiful people living in that condo. Wait until you're old and can't take care of your house. Then where will you live?"
The woman concluded with some advice for the council: "You know you're not going to win. Work with him, and get him to settle on 60 units. Then it won't be so bad."
After that the group voted to continue the negotiations with Pontarelli. But neither Gora was satisfied.
"This is Monty Hall," yelled John Gora. "This is Let's Make a Deal. What's going to stop him from grabbing all the land on the northwest side?"
"Not much," murmured Gomez. "This is a capitalist society."
As the meeting came to a halt, the Goras steadfastly vowed to fight the Pontarelli condo plans every step of the way no matter what the council did.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.