When does development become overdevelopment? Emily Coxhead and her neighbors think that their neighborhood–known variously as the “Fringe,” or “West DePaul,” or the “Clybourn Corridor”–has reached the saturation point. A proposal to build what Coxhead calls “seven very narrow town houses” on a skinny, block-long strip of land that also contains a working set of railroad tracks has them up in arms.

The lot stands between Belden and Webster, and Wayne and Lakewood. Coxhead, an early settler of the neighborhood who has a view of the site from her windows, says it’s “a very narrow parcel, only about 40 feet wide. The alley, which would be its only access, is 16 feet wide by the survey. The railroad tracks cut across the property, so you’d minimally have to remove another 13 feet. The town houses could be 27 feet [deep] if the front door is flush with the train–literally flush with the train. The train only comes by twice a week, but still, you’d have to walk across the track to get into your apartment. I’ve seen the plans, and I still can’t figure out how they’re going to get seven town houses in there. Wow, I know this area’s hot, and I know everybody wants a piece of it, but this is ridiculous!”

This is only the latest example of what Coxhead and her neighbors consider “overbuilding to the nth degree, to the last inch.” She also cites town houses that were built into the courtyards of the Sanctuary, the troubled condominium development at Sheffield and Fullerton–“like somebody took a seam out to squeeze in something else.” Then there’s Belgravia Terrace at Sedgwick and Wisconsin–“very expensive town houses, very exclusive, where one set butts right up against the other.” There’s also the Embassy Club, across the street from the proposed Belden-Webster development, which she describes as “a very large project, with every inch of land being utilized. It’s also right next to the railroad, but the back of the houses face the tracks–they front onto an interior courtyard. And they created a street. Nobody else is doing without a street.”

Given its present zoning, the controversial Belden-Webster parcel can be used only for manufacturing, which requires a 40-foot setback. But rezoned to R4, the proposed seven town houses would, surprisingly, be below the maximum density permitted. A proposed change to R5, which would allow the developer to build more stories and more units, has been denied. That someone is even considering developing the lot now is due in part to poor planning by other developers. When the site just to the east of it was in the planning stages, the builder could have bought the strip from the railroad for only a little more money, but declined.

Residents claim the area is already too congested, and dismiss claims that the town houses will have adequate parking. Coxhead cites the nearby Webster Place cinema development. “They promised us that they would have more than enough parking, but we get the overflow here. We already have to park two or three blocks from home now. So they’ll have garages. Where are their visitors going to park?” She and other residents also want to know how services would be delivered and who would pay for them. “The alley’s unpaved, but if you put that kind of traffic on it, you’ll have to pave it,” she says. “Who’s going to pay for that? The property owners who didn’t want the damned thing in the first place? We don’t have enough sewers, we don’t have enough telephone lines. I have a feeling we’re going to be strong-armed into just incredible density. It’s going to be squeeze, squeeze, squeeze all the way in.”

“We moved here because it wasn’t as congested as it is further east,” complains Polley Thomas, who lives next to the Belden-Webster site and who opposes the development. “It’s a relief to the neighborhood to have a little open space. We used to have sunflowers and some kind of blue flower all along the tracks. And they were really beautiful–it was like a little country pocket. Then the city came along and sprayed defoliant on it. I’d love to have a park go in–and I’d be willing to work on it.”

The neighbors had hoped to see the land turned into a “green space” administered by the Park District. Rob Buono, an assistant to 43rd Ward Alderman Edwin Eisendrath, has been looking into that possibility, and reports, “I don’t think it’s hopeless at all. The property developer is certainly open to negotiations–he’s willing to sell part of the parcel at fair market value. But there’s certainly a funding issue that has to be kept in mind. There are budgetary constraints. The most likely source of funding is the Park District. But they’re under a consent decree that means that they may have to concentrate on other parts of the city that don’t have as many green spaces as we have in this ward.”

Another sticking point is the question of what constitutes “fair market value.” Estimates range from $200,000 up to $1 million; the buyers, John and Catherine Rentas, and developer Steve Jaskowiak have refused to say what they paid for it. There is even some question about whether they have paid for it; no one not personally involved in the transaction has yet seen a purchase contract, and there is speculation that the contract is contingent upon getting the zoning change. Not getting the change would presumably lower the value.

The attorney for the buyers, Bill Hennessy of Daniel L. Houlihan & Associates, says the Rentases and Jaskowiak own it, but declines to tell the price they paid, or what they would consider a fair offer. “We are engaged in a long dialogue with the community, and the alderman is intimately involved in the matter. We have indicated a willingness to entertain and consider any reasonable alternatives,” Hennessy says. “We think we’re addressing their concerns. If they have a counterproposal, we’re willing to entertain it.”

Fritz Biederman, the planning-committee chairman of the Sheffield Neighborhood Association, thinks a good counterproposal was made when the original request to rezone to R5 was turned down flat. He says the proposed Belden-Webster development “would be less dense than Lakewood. This spot zoning is kind of an isolated incongruity. Looking at the broadest scope of the neighborhood, I would consider rezoning to all residential.” Biederman’s board initially supported rezoning to R4. When nearby property owners objected, the board reconsidered. The matter is now resting for two months before further consideration, while all the parties involved try to agree on a compromise.

Biederman dismisses the neighbors’ concerns about paying for infrastructure changes. “The city’s not playing Santa Claus–the developer will have to pay for that.” And he is unsympathetic toward complaints about congestion. “We’re living in the city of Chicago. We’re not living in Schaumburg or Plum Grove. You choose to live in the city for the amenities, for the convenience of shopping and being able to walk places. Part of living in the city is living in a dense environment. This is actually less dense than the buildings they live in. Can you really deny somebody the right to develop a harvest of efforts for their own property?”

One alternative he cites would be to build just three town houses instead of seven–one on Webster and two on Belden, with the center land as a park.

“The developer said he could live with that,” Biederman says. Local property owners have said they would be willing to compensate the developer for the parkland, and then cede it to the Park District. But there is a question about liability. “The railroad is not really a factor [in building residences]; others cohabitate with the railroad. If the area becomes a park, children would be playing along the tracks–and that liability would be greater than the home owners’.”

Alderman Eisendrath is diplomatic and noncommittal. “I’m committed to making sure that [both sides] have a serious discussion between them. I’m committed to seeing the neighbors treated fairly. There are all kinds of things to put on the table. Among them are paving the alley and density.

“It’s an impossible site–otherwise, it would have been developed long ago. I’d like to see it resolved in a way everyone can be happy with. Many people would love to see an apple orchard there. I’d love to see an apple orchard there. Is it likely? No.”

The neighbors continue to organize. Emily Coxhead reports that she has collected signatures against the development from virtually all the 61 people who own property contiguous to the site. “Nobody’s turned us down so far,” she says. There is a sense, she says, that the only real issue is the extent of the concessions they can win from the developer–and she’s not sure how binding any agreement would be. “The fact is, zoning laws in Chicago are quite loose. Once you get past a certain level, you can do what you damn well please. Promises made verbally are not legally binding, and even writing them down is not enough. They actually have to put them into the deed. And even then, if they sell the property, they can take them out. When Webster Place was being developed, the promoter promised us it would be the home of Steppenwolf, a 450-seat live theater, and that he would convert the old Butternut Bread factory. And the neighbors all went, ‘Yay, yay, yay! That’s exactly what we want!’ The zoning change was based on that. Then in one night he tore the building down. He came back to the neighborhood and said, ‘I had to, it was structurally unsound. And by the way, Steppenwolf no longer wants to be my tenant, so I’m going to put in eight movie theaters instead.’ And because he had the zoning change, there was nothing the neighborhood could do about it.

“In reality, there are a lot of ways to get around these agreements. Once builders have a zoning change, they use every square foot that’s available.”

Says Polley Thomas, “I have a feeling it’s going to be horrendous no matter what.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.