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Getting Ugly

Is Buena Park's objection to proposed senior housing really about aesthetics?

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By Ben Joravsky

As strange as it sounds or as hard as it is to believe, there's a block club in Uptown up in arms over a proposed home for low-income senior citizens.

It's not the seniors that scare them as much as it is the size, look, and site of the proposed eight-story building, opponents insist. "No matter what people say, we are not opposed to the concept of affordable senior housing," says Christopher Pries, president of Buena Park Neighbors, the newly formed block club that leads opposition to the project. "We don't believe this building's height or facade conform to the historical character of the neighborhood."

Few observers, particularly those on the other side of the issue, buy this, and the nasty neighborhood fight has become symbolic of tensions in a gentrifying community. "I never thought we'd get opposition to this," says Mary Burns, housing coordinator for the Jane Addams Senior Caucus, a codeveloper of the project. "If you can't build housing for seniors what can you build?"

The proposed project, targeted for a vacant lot at 4040 N. Sheridan, is named for activist Ruth Shriman. Before she died in 1994 Shriman conducted a housing survey that showed that as many as 4,000 seniors faced displacement on the north side, as affordable units were lost to rising rents and condo conversions.

A few months after Shriman died, the Senior Caucus joined with the Lakeview Action Coalition to form the Ruth Shriman Affordable Housing Campaign. Over the next few years they scoured the north side looking for land on which to build housing.

"It was hard because almost all of the land around here is being developed very fast," says Dan Schwick, pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church and president of the LAC. In 1995 they noticed that the Palacio, an abandoned movie theater on Sheridan Road just north of Irving Park, was being demolished. Within a year they put together a proposal to develop the site with 70 one-bedroom apartments and 12 studios renting for between $265 and $560 a month. A developer was brought in (the Interfaith Housing Development Corporation), an architect was hired (Michael Gelick), building plans were drawn, and a site manager was selected (Lutheran Social Services of Illinois).

The project was endorsed by several north-lakefront aldermen and Mayor Daley, who saw to it that the city sold the land to the coalition for $1. "We didn't intend to build in Uptown. It's just that Lakeview was so overdeveloped there was no available land there," says Schwick. "For a while we thought about moving into the bus barn on Clark [in Lincoln Park]. But that property wasn't available. All along this was a very public process. We went to various public officials and got their approval, including aldermen [Bernie] Hansen [44th], Helen Shiller [46th], and [Charles] Bernardini [43rd]. In July 1995 we had a meeting where 500 seniors packed a church gymnasium to meet with the mayor. He enthusiastically agreed to all of our requests."

By February the city's housing department had approved the proposal. "The project looked like a sure go," says Burns. "We thought we had all the approvals we needed."

What they didn't have was the blessing of the Buena Park Neighbors, a block club formed only last February.

"Someone in the neighborhood brought the proposal up at an early meeting, and no one knew anything about it," says Pries. "The developer claimed to have met with people in the community--no one knows who they met with."

The opposition surprised coalition members, who wondered why anyone would care about their housing plans. It's not as if seniors are disruptive, and they wouldn't cause traffic congestion, since few seniors drive. Yes, the building would be taller than others on the block, but there are high-rises all along the lakefront. And if block club members are so sensitive to issues of architectural integrity why don't they object to the garish town houses and strip malls popping up all over the north side? All in all, it seemed a curious place to draw the line.

The developers couldn't ignore the block club because the site is in the Buena Park Historic District. "That means federal approval is required for any new construction that uses government funds," says Schwick. "If it's a privately funded project it could be built without federal approval."

Pries and his allies called Schwick and a meeting was arranged for April. Pries and Schwick disagree on what followed. Schwick says he asked that the meeting be postponed because Interfaith's president, Eugene Callahan, was undergoing heart surgery. "I called them and said, 'We can't keep this date. Can we reschedule it as soon as Callahan gets out of the hospital?'" says Schwick. "They said, 'Why don't you come and answer as many questions as you can?' I said I would, but I don't have a lot of technical and financial stuff. I don't have the drawings.' They said, 'Come anyway,' which I did."

Pries contends that his group discovered Callahan wouldn't be attending the meeting after calling Schwick. "We found out only because we called and Schwick's like, 'Can we cancel and come back later?'" says Pries. "And we said, 'No, we had passed out flyers, the community's coming. Can you make a reasonable presentation?' And he showed up without handouts and without basic answers and this one person he was with kept saying, 'You're going to have to talk to our attorneys.' We're like, 'Stand back. What kind of development is this if the executive director is the only person who can talk about it? Doesn't he have an associate who can stand in for him?'"

By then it was clear that the sides had irreconcilable differences. The block club wanted the building reduced from eight stories to five and outfitted with underground parking. The developers said such changes would raise construction costs and make the rents unaffordable to the poor.

"They claim they don't mind low-income seniors coming in--they just don't like the building," says Burns. "Then they come up with changes that keep low income out by making the building unaffordable. So you read between the lines."

As the summer wore on the conflict escalated and the block club members went on the attack. On July 23 the block club wrote a letter to First Chicago bank, one of the project's key investors, to "serve you notice" that the community "may respond negatively to the financial institution that you represent as a reaction for your participation in the financing of this project."

When the local Lerner paper ran an article on the project, one member of Buena Park Neighbors responded with a letter to the editor calling the building's proposed facade "embarrassingly similar to the Cabrini-Green public housing development." She noted that "the 46th ward already has one of the highest concentrations of low-income and Section 8 Housing in the City of Chicago. It is proven that high concentrations of this type of housing creates numerous social problems and creates atmospheres of violence and insecurity for the residents. Is this then really creating a 'home' for our senior citizens?'"

The letter offended the developers, who accused the block club of invoking Cabrini-Green to exploit antipathy to public housing, and it upset Helen Shiller, who says she believes the block club's little more than a front for whoever intends to challenge her for reelection in 1999. "They want to show that they can kill any kind of low-income housing," says Shiller, "even housing for seniors."

The city scheduled a meeting on the proposal on September 8. Soon unsigned flyers were posted in Uptown calling on residents to choose between "Need Vs. Greed!" and accusing the neighbors of "simply, ugly greed. These people are so afraid that anything affordable will threaten their property values and their attempts to make money off our community."

The block club members say they have been unfairly labeled as pampered yuppie home owners. Yes, it's true that many have recently moved to the area. But not all are yuppies. Many, including Pries and vice president Aaron Taylor, in fact rent. "Let's see--this is a federally subsidized project. For-profit developers have received the land from the city for $1. And they're calling us greedy!" counters Pries. "I call that ironic."

The September 8 hearing was a raucous affair in which each side heckled, jeered, and accused the other of lying and of packing the hall with outsiders.

The matter's now in the hands of a federal landmark agency, which must determine if the project violates the area's architectural integrity. With federal approval, construction can begin very soon. Without it, the developers may have to lower their building.

Either way, both sides agree that the matter probably will resurface when Shiller runs for reelection.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Dan Schwick, Mary Burns photo by Randy Tunnel.

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