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Orange designation doesn't protect historical buildings after all--not when Burton Natarus and the Plan Commission approve demolition.

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Burton Natarus, alderman of the 42nd Ward, is sitting in his third-floor City Hall office doing what he does best--kvetching. This time it's about the preservationists who are upset with the way he's handled development around the Newberry Library. "People don't understand--they don't always appreciate what I have to do," he says. "This is a very complicated issue."

For better or worse, Natarus has been the chief planner for the near north side for the past two decades. He sits on the Chicago Plan Commission and on the City Council's zoning committee. Every zoning request and building plan in the 42nd Ward needs his approval--if he doesn't clear it, it doesn't get done. "I think I've done a good job of balancing the interests," he says. "Why do you think Mayor Daley put me on the zoning committee? Because I'm a nut on this subject."

It may seem odd that Natarus has so much authority over important planning policies given his reputation as a somewhat avuncular sad sack with a propensity for windy orations and off-the-wall propositions, such as his proposal to put diapers on carriage horses. But many observers think that behind the bluster is one of the council's keener minds, at least when it comes to the intricacies of zoning and planning law. His office is filled with books on both.

Natarus was slated to run for alderman in 1971 by 42nd Ward Democratic committeeman George Dunne, and he's been in the council ever since--only 14th Ward alderman Ed Burke has been there longer. In the 70s and 80s the 42nd was one of the city's most economically and racially diverse wards, spreading west from the Gold Coast to include Cabrini-Green. But in the mid-90s its mostly black precincts were redistricted into the 27th Ward, and the 42nd's boundaries were pushed south through the Loop all the way to Taylor Street, so that it included much of the most valuable real estate in the city. Daley made it clear that he trusted Natarus to oversee its development. The two shared a simple approach to planning--virtually any development was good because it expanded the tax base.

"We have a magnificent city here," says Natarus. "I was just in Phoenix. There is no downtown there. Do you know how big downtown Cleveland is? Six blocks. People don't understand what we have here. We have very craftily promoted the idea of mixed-use. We have a high-rise district. We haven't raised the tax rate since 1987--because our base is expanding."

The hottest area for development in the ward has been the Gold Coast. According to an October 20 article by Greg Hinz in Crain's Chicago Business, ten high-rise developments, representing about 2,000 units of housing, are currently "on the drawing board within a city block of Rush between Superior and Oak streets." For years preservationists such as Mike Moran, cofounder of Preservation Chicago, have urged Natarus and Daley to preserve the old mansions and town houses in the area. By and large Natarus and Daley have resisted their pleas, and most of these old buildings have been torn down.

Natarus contends he's done as much as any other official to advance the cause of landmarking, even if no one gives him any credit. "I did the Newberry Library and Bughouse Square," he says. "I downzoned everything to the west and everything to the east of Sandburg Village. Nobody in Sandburg can say their view is blocked. They don't care. I changed the name of LaSalle Street to LaSalle Drive--it made it classier. Those flower dividers in the street--Daley did them, but that was originally my idea. But do they thank me? No."

Yet he admits he tends to resist landmarking property without the owner's consent, because he believes so strongly in property owners' rights--he can work himself into a lather talking about them. They're right up there with freedom of speech, he says, adding that when he thinks about doing something that could depress the value of a piece of property--which landmarking often does, because it limits an owner's options--it reminds him of Doctor Zhivago. "There's one scene where these middle-class Russians--physicians, I think--came to Moscow after they were at their dachas. There's a woman in their house in a big fur coat, and she says, 'You have to go into the front room to live.' 'But it's my home,' someone says. 'No,' says the woman, 'it belongs to the state.'"

He pauses. "See, this is a country of private property. All through history we derived our law through English common law. Our constitutional fathers, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, not only talked about civil liberties but the rights of private property. Our Bill of Rights, our sacred Bill of Rights--read the Fifth Amendment. The second sentence says to the extent that government decrees property there will be just compensation. You cannot just landmark a man's property without due process."

His opponents think this is classic Natarus--a bit of bluster intended to camouflage a simple policy of doing whatever it is Daley and the developers want him to do. They point out that Natarus is selective about whose property rights he defends. He didn't, for instance, rage against the city when it seized and destroyed the property of small business owners along Maxwell Street to make way for upscale housing.

"He doesn't respond when the citizens say, 'Please don't tear this down,'" says Mary Baker, a north-side resident. "He does what the developers want. He only does preservation if Mayor Daley tells him he has to." She points to the old McCormick YWCA at Oak and Dearborn, built in 1928 by Cyrus Hall McCormick, president of International Harvester, as a dormitory for young women. In 1969 the dormitory closed, and the 11-story building was sold to the William Scholl College of Podiatric Medicine. Several years ago the college closed, and the building has been empty ever since.

Local preservationists begged Natarus to include the building in the Washington Square landmark district, which was created in 2000 to protect the few surviving town houses and mansions near the Newberry Library. "We thought the old Y was a valuable building with a great history, and we felt it could be converted into a usable property that would give balance to the street," says Moran. "But the city didn't put the YWCA in the landmark district. I thought, 'Hmm, that's strange.' Alderman Natarus told us, 'Don't worry. I'll do what I can to protect it.'"

Natarus says he would have added the dormitory to the district, but Brian Goeken, the planning department deputy commissioner who oversees landmarking issues, opposed the idea. "The reason it wasn't in the landmark district," Natarus says, "is that Goeken--who knows best--told me it wasn't worthy of landmarking."

Sometime in the summer of 2003, Natarus says, developer William Smith came to him with a plan to rehab the building: "Remember, it's been vacant all this time, and it's not generating any taxes. And Smith comes out with a proposal to rehab the school and build a 40-story high-rise in the parking lot next to that. So I take that to the community--like I always do with these things--and the people went berserk." He says the people in Newberry Plaza, a condo high-rise to the east of the Scholl building, told him they didn't want the proposed tower throwing a shadow on their outdoor swimming pool.

So Smith brought back a new proposal to tear down the old dormitory and build a 22-story high-rise on the site. Next to it, in the parking lot, would go 14 town houses, which wouldn't cast a shadow. "The Newberry Plaza people liked it, and it was good for the city, because this land wasn't generating any taxes," says Natarus. "The preservationists didn't like it. They said, 'We have another developer who would preserve Scholl's.' But Smith has a contract to buy. I said, 'I'm sorry, I cannot break up a contract.'"

The proposal was approved by the Plan Commission at a stormy December 11 meeting, where preservationists pleaded with city officials to save the dormitory. Moran and his allies argued that Smith should have stuck with his original plan even if the Newberry Plaza residents opposed it. "I don't think that's good planning to tear down a historically valuable building without a proper hearing just because residents don't want a shadow on their swimming pool," says Moran, who lives on the same block as the Scholl building. "How many months is the pool going to be open? Four? Five?"

According to a survey of historically important properties that the city did a decade ago, the YWCA is an orange-rated building, meaning it's historically and architecturally valuable enough to trigger a 90-day hold on any proposal to demolish it. During that 90-day hold, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks is supposed to hold a hearing on whether the building should be saved.

But there isn't going to be a hearing. "The city told us that they were releasing the 90-day permit because it was approved by the Plan Commission," says Moran. "The theory is if it goes through a Plan Commission review it doesn't need to go through historical assessment--it can bypass the demolition-delay ordinance. That makes no sense. The Plan Commission doesn't consider the historical value of a building--that's not part of their review. So now any developer who wants to avoid a 90-day hold can just take his case to the Plan Commission. That's a loophole. I called Brian Goeken and said, 'Please don't release this demolition permit.' He called me back and said, 'The permit was released.' The whole process was a sham."

Moran hopes a letter-writing campaign by former YWCA residents who suddenly appeared when rumors started flying will persuade Daley to intervene and save the building. But Natarus says the teardown's a done deal. He's even uncharacteristically optimistic about how voters will feel about the issue come the next election. He figures it won't matter how loud preservationists howl as long as Newberry Plaza residents remember who kept the shadow off their swimming pool.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph, A. Jackson.

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