News
08.16.2012
Ganging up for Density
Transit-oriented development approved in Chicago's West Town.
Courtesy Wheller Kearns Architects

When developers courted an empty lot at the southwest corner of the Polish Triangle in the late 1980s, the residents of Chicago’s East Village neighborhood lobbied for a landmark. Instead they got a Pizza Hut.

Now 1601 West Division Street will house an 11-story mixed-use development with 99 units and ground-floor commercial tenants, PNC Bank and Intelligentsia Coffee. Wheeler Kearns Architects will design the project, which sits at the southwest corner of West Division Street and North Ashland Avenue.

The high-rise will be the first to take advantage of an ordinance introduced by alderman Proco Joe Moreno that allows projects near public transit to qualify for high-density, low-parking zoning.

“We wanted to build consensus around the notion that we should be attracting people who want to use public transit, walk, bike,” said Scott Rappe, an architect who has lived and worked in the neighborhood since 1988. Rappe is a co-chair of the East Village Association (EVA), which has lobbied aggressively since the 1980s for forward-thinking development.

 
 

Developer Interra-vision proposed a stand-alone Walgreens and a parking lot in 2007, to East Village Association’s dismay. “We have a golden opportunity,” wrote EVA member George Matwyshyn in a 2007 letter to then-alderman Manny Flores. “What path do you want to take?”

The Wicker Park & Bucktown Chamber of Commerce, the West Town chamber and prominent community members, including architect Jeanne Gang—Studio Gang’s office is one block north of the site—joined in the fight. “This corner represents a fantastic opportunity to help create a more sustainable city and further define the triangle with great urban architecture at the same time,” Gang wrote in a letter at the time.

“Paying an obscene $4.85 million dollars for this real estate and then keeping it from serving its highest and best use,” Rappe wrote in 2007, “is like an art patron purchasing the Mona Lisa and squirreling it away for their own private enjoyment.”

Their campaign worked. The property was foreclosed and Rob Buono, the developer who acquired it, proved much more receptive to EVA’s vision.

“It was collaborative. The community was very forward thinking,” Buono said.

The transit-oriented development ordinance is limited by both zoning and distance. It applies only to B or C district developments with dash 5 density that are located within 250 feet of a CTA or RTA station, and that have at least one bike parking space for each car that would otherwise be required. But Rappe, Buono, and Raymond Valadez, chief of staff for alderman Moreno, all say they hope it serves as a precedent for transit-oriented development elsewhere.

“This was really the first time this policy idea of true transit-oriented development was embraced in the city,” said Valadez . “Communication was ultimately the key to success between the developer, the community, and our office.”

For Buono, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1992, it’s an opportunity. “I think it’s going to provide a basis for city council and city planners to think more about transit-oriented development and how it might be appropriate at more locations throughout the city,” he said.

Gas stations and fast food restaurants occupy many prominent corners around the city. Those are risk-averse developments, Buono added, that make sense when times are tough. “I think that’s viewed as more problematic particularly in proximity to public transit,” he said.

They aim to break ground this fall and complete construction 10 to 14 months later.

Christopher Bentley