By Ben Joravsky

Lakeview’s ongoing land war escalated last month with a proposal to cram an eight-story, 100-unit brick condo complex on the Mazda car lot at 3434 N. Ashland. As expected, the locals rebelled, pointing out the obvious: the condos would generate more traffic, noise, and congestion in a neighborhood that’s already overcrowded. They argued that instead of “up-zoning” the land, as the developers requested, the city ought to “down-zone” it before things get worse.

“There’s no planning around here,” says Elena Zanussi, who lives on the block just west of the proposed development. “It’s just, give the developers what they want–to hell with the consequences.”

Zanussi’s parents bought her two-flat on Marshfield more than 30 years ago, when Lakeview consisted of working-class whites and Hispanics. Of course the neighborhood has changed radically since then, as gentrification has moved north from Lincoln Park. Houses now sell for as much as $1 million, and almost every available lot has some sort of town house or three-flat going up. Zanussi and her husband, Tom, got a vivid view of the change; they moved to Oregon in 1994 and then back to their Marshfield home, which they’d been renting, five years later. “I couldn’t believe what happened to my old neighborhood in the years we were gone,” she says. “There was no parking. It was so crowded. The last thing we needed was more development.”

In mid-January she received a certified letter from a lawyer notifying her that the owner of the Mazda dealership was asking the city to rezone the property to “allow for the construction of 100 condominium units, approximately 25,000 square feet of retail space on the ground floor and parking.”

The lawyer had mailed the notification letter, which applicants for zoning changes are required to send to property owners within 250 feet of the address they want rezoned, to Zanussi’s Oregon address. The post office there forwarded it to Chicago. “I thought that was curious since I had been back here since August–an up-to-date listing of the property tax rolls would have my current address,” she says. “I started calling some of my neighbors on Marshfield–Gary Nyman, Jim Brinkman, Lida Echeverri. None of them had even received their letters. I’m thinking, what’s going on? Why did they mail this to my old address? How come the only property owner who got the letter was the one who supposedly lived on the other side of the country?”

She called her alderman, Ted Matlak. “I asked for Matlak and wound up talking to Jim Thompson, one of his aides,” says Zanussi. “I don’t know if Jim was authentically surprised or if he’s a good actor, but he says he never heard of the project. I thought, you’ve got to be kidding–it’s 100 units and you never heard of it? You mean to tell me that the developer didn’t at least contact the alderman before seeking the change?”

The more she and her neighbors discussed the matter, the more they opposed it. The project, they agreed, was far too big for the block. “If you’re going to change the zoning, it would make much more sense to down-zone, not up-zone,” says Nyman. “I don’t think we need another gentrified ghetto in Lakeview. It’s monotony gone wild. That’s really what the suburbs are, and now these developers are trying to reproduce it in the city.”

They had lots of unanswered questions. Many residents didn’t get their zoning-change letters, dated January 11, until early February, well after Zanussi had made a fuss about getting hers so late. Why hadn’t residents received them earlier? Was it bad mail service? Or was someone trying to limit the public outcry? Whatever the case, why wasn’t the city more involved? Why didn’t the planning department or Matlak hold a meeting to answer questions and calm concerns?

Matlak was elusive. Nyman, Zanussi, and others say they called him three or four times a week, but the person who answered the phone always said he was out or in a meeting. They say he never returned their calls. “I called Matlak to demand a community meeting, and of course it’s Thompson who calls me back,” says Zanussi. “Only now he’s changed. Suddenly he knows all about the project. And he’s got this attitude. He says, ‘Look, there’s no reason to have a meeting, because the alderman’s not going to support this anyway. It’s just gonna die.’ I said, ‘Can he put it in writing?’ And he says no. And I’m thinking, what’s with all the hush-hush? Why doesn’t Matlak just go public, hold a meeting, and state his position for everyone to hear? Was he telling the developers one thing and having Thompson tell us something else?”

In late January, Zanussi and Nyman started going door-to-door, collecting signatures on petitions opposing the development. Zanussi sent the petitions by certified mail to Matlak’s ward office and to City Hall. “A month goes by, and nothing happens,” she says. “Then my letter comes back from City Hall marked ‘undeliverable.’ Can you believe that? How can that be? How can they not deliver a letter to an alderman in City Hall? I didn’t know who to blame. Was it the post office, or is my alderman hiding under the rug?”

Eventually Thompson called to say that Matlak would participate in a public meeting, on one condition: it had to be run by the West Lakeview Neighbors, a long-standing community group whose president is a Park District employee named Chuck Webber.

“I call Chuck, and he tells me, ‘Oh, our organization just found out about this, and we’re really against it,'” says Zanussi. “Then a few days later I get a call back, and Chuck says, ‘Gee, I met with the developers, and these plans aren’t so bad. We can work something out.’ He had changed his tune completely. He starts telling me, ‘It could be a lot worse. With the zoning they have they could build a 50-unit high-rise.’ I’m thinking, gimme a break. We’re not living in the former Soviet Union under the KGB. We don’t have to take this crap. We can fight.”

On March 15 the Marshfield neighbors met with Webber and the developers, the Largo Development Company. Drawings were unveiled. “It was an eight-story behemoth,” says Zanussi, “running almost all the way from Cornelia to Roscoe–closed in, fenced off, cold and impersonal.”

“When I saw that drawing,” says Nyman, “I thought, it’s a Trojan horse, and inside that Trojan horse is what they really want. I can see them coming back with something else–maybe 50 units, who knows?–and saying, ‘You wouldn’t let us do what we wanted, so we’ll compromise.’ And we will wind up accepting a ‘compromise’ we ordinarily wouldn’t accept on the grounds that, as bad as it might be, it’s not as bad as what they originally wanted. Listen, I’ve lived in Chicago all my life. I know how things work.”

Nyman and Zanussi copied the proposal and made it part of a four-page packet they delivered to most of the residents on their block of Marshfield. As a result of their efforts, more than 200 residents attended a meeting Matlak called for March 23. Many were livid. “Matlak didn’t help things when he got up and said, ‘I didn’t have to hold this meeting. I could have made the zoning change by fiat. But this shows how I care so much,'” says Zanussi. “How condescending. Does he think we’re just a bunch of stupid peons on his manor? Oh, thank you, master, for letting us be heard.”

After over an hour of speeches, outbursts, and declarations of opposition, the proposal was put to a hand vote of the people in the room. The property’s two owners voted for it. Everyone else voted against.

Most observers agree that this particular proposal is now dead. What comes next, however, is anyone’s guess. Webber says he’ll meet with the developers to see if they can devise something more acceptable to the residents. “We’ll sit down in a smaller group setting, because it’s hard to work something out in a larger setting,” he says. “My sense is that Ashland Avenue is a commercial street. I’d hate to give up commercial space there.”

What about Zanussi’s claim that Webber’s group is too accommodating when it comes to developers?

“I’m a pragmatist,” he says. “I want to see what’s best for my community. I understand that means I have to work with some constraints and I won’t get everything I want.”

I phoned Matlak for comment, and Thompson returned the call. “That project’s dead,” he said. “The people hated it. We’re not going to stay in business very long if we don’t give the people what they want.”

Why didn’t Matlak call for the meeting from the outset? I asked. And why wouldn’t he return calls?

“Listen, I told those neighbors we don’t have to have a community meeting since the alderman’s against it,” he said. “Everybody’s time is valuable. Why call a meeting, especially when you have a problem that’s not going anywhere?” He added that the Marshfield residents should have more faith in their alderman. “I don’t buy that [Trojan horse] theory. I think that’s a bit cynical.”

Zanussi isn’t convinced. “I’ve been dealing with these people for months, and I don’t trust any of them,” she says. “I’m telling you, if we hadn’t banged the walls they’d be digging the hole on Ashland Avenue right now.”

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