LINCOLN SQUARE — Residents staged a protest Saturday afternoon in an ongoing battle over an affordable housing proposal near the Brown Line.
Dozens of people joined a “Build Housing Now” rally to support a project for 51 low-cost apartments in the city-owned parking lot at 4715 N. Western Ave., across from the Western Avenue station.
The project, led by Community Developers, was pre-approved for essential municipal tax credits for affordable housing in December. It has since stalled as it emerged that officials from the Ministry of Housing and the Ministry of Planning and Development had long insisted on fewer parking spaces in the final design before allocating the funding. The proposal as it is includes 41 places.
City leaders say they want to bring in as much affordable housing as possible, don’t think the neighborhood’s commercial district requires as much parking, and don’t want to use scarce public funds to support parking when they try to encourage the use of public transport. Officials also said they had suggested designs with more apartments and 18 or 19 parking spaces that would meet their needs and allow the project to move forward.
At the time of the rally, the parking lot was more than two-thirds full.
Housing officials say they told Ald. Matt Martin (47th) and the promoter for months the number of parking spaces was a no-go. Residents only recently learned of the city’s position, leading to confusion and anger among supporters who believed the long-negotiated project was a done deal.
Martin vowed to continue to defend the current design while some neighbors urged all officials involved to broker a compromise to seal the deal.
Lincoln Square resident Alex Nelson said she organized the rally to show city leaders how much support there is for the project.
“It’s something that we, as a neighborhood, who live in this neighborhood and walk past this development every day; it’s something that’s very close to our hearts and we want to see it moving forward,” Nelson said. “There is obviously a presence of people in this neighborhood who care about this issue.”
John Morrison of Indivisible Lincoln Square said housing is essential for the future of the neighborhood.
“We need to add housing to this community if we want to keep our community vibrant, if we want to keep our community diverse,” Morrison said. “People love Lincoln Square, they want to move here, and people who move here want to own bigger places. What’s going to happen as we lose density is that we’re going to lose the support of our big local businesses.
Martin attended the rally but declined to comment. He pledged to involve Mayor Lori Lightfoot, but his office did not say if they would meet with Martin about the project.
Since the project was announced two years ago, it has been controversial among neighbors who want affordable housing and those who want ample parking in the shopping district. The latest plan would have preserved all but two public spaces, a design that some felt was a good compromise.
Some said they thought the city also favored the design when they chose the project from 24 to qualify for $1 billion in tax credits. City officials have since explained that there is a two-step approval process and that it is common for the city and the developer to reorganize or redesign projects to obtain the financing.
Housing officials have accused Martin of continuing to tout the parking lot despite opposition from the city, which the alderman denies.
“We found a great middle ground,” Morrison said. “During this compromise process, the city was behind us. And then suddenly they aren’t. We have to tell them it’s too late. We are ready. The community is ready.
Lincoln Square resident Peter Evans said the neighborhood is behind the times to make better use of that land.
“It’s just been a parking lot for a while and it’s next to a bank that no longer operates as a bank,” he said. “It’s kind of an unused space.”
Illinois House of Representatives candidates Joe Struck and Eileen Dordek also attended the rally in support of the project. Both are running for the 13th District seat, which represents parts of Uptown, Lincoln Square and Ravenswood.
“Housing should be as unique as this neighborhood,” Struck said. “It shouldn’t be uniform, rigid or homogenous – just like people in this community aren’t uniform or homogeneous. Outdated zoning laws create a housing shortage. Housing at different income levels creates a community and keeps it intact.
Dordek said she’s a longtime resident of the area and remembers talking with Martin about the project two years ago.
“It’s something I know from knocking on doors for many years in this community that we need,” she said.
Other proponents pointed to the explosion of expensive housing in the neighborhood, part of a citywide trend in which two-, three-, and four-unit apartments are rapidly being replaced by single-family homes in wealthier neighborhoods like Lincoln Square and North Center.
Jesse Hoyt, a community organizer who started a petition in support of the project, said he saw this dynamic in Ravenswood, where he grew up.
“The neighborhood is still a wonderful place,” Hoyt said. “It’s not because we have new neighbors that things have changed radically. But we have lost diversity – and it comes at a cost. Especially being a young guy and Mexican, I think it’s really important to see people like me in the neighborhood to feel comfortable.
Mary Claire Schmit, who previously lived in Ravenswood and now owns a building in Albany Park, said failure to make affordable housing a reality could have broad implications.
“It’s scary to think if that affordable housing doesn’t get built, what that means for nearby communities and what’s to come,” Schmit said.
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