In any other neighborhood Bill Smith’s 23-unit town house complex, having won the local alderman’s support, would be under construction by now whether neighbors wanted it or not. But this being Lincoln Park, things are a little different. These neighbors have a lawyer living on their block who argued their case before the Zoning Board of Appeals, where, to their pleasant surprise, they won.
The ZBA rejected developer Smith’s request for a zoning variance, without which the complex can’t be built. So instead the developer plans to build an eight-story, 32-unit mid-rise on the site–for which, believe it or not, he needs no zoning variance.
Neither Smith nor his lawyers would comment. But almost everyone else agrees that his latest proposal looks tackier and will cause more congestion than the original. “I guess you can say the residents won the battle but lost the war,” says Allan Mellis, a longtime Lincoln Park activist. “You might ask: how can Smith build a mid-rise but not the town houses? Well, that’s our zoning law. You might also ask: how did it all come to this? Well, that’s Lincoln Park.”
The development is slated for 2700 N. Lincoln, now the site of a big brick fixtures store. Over the summer Smith presented his proposal to 43rd Ward Alderman Edwin Eisendrath, who told Smith to review the plans with the Wrightwood Neighbors Conservation Association, the largest community group in the area.
“To get a variance you need the alderman’s support, and you won’t get the alderman’s support if the residents aren’t behind you,” says Mellis, Wrightwood’s planning chairman. “When Smith came to me I called Skyline, and they ran an article notifying people about the plan. Then I put together a committee of interested people. I invited the chamber of commerce, local business leaders, and some nearby residents. We weren’t going to come to a final decision. We were going to work with Smith and come up with something reasonable that we could bring to the larger community at a public meeting.”
Smith’s original plan called for 32 town houses, to be built without any setback from the sidewalk. After weeks of negotiations, he settled on 23. “Smith’s tough,” says Mellis. “We fought him hard. We did the best we could.” In December, Smith sent letters to residents notifying them that he was seeking a zoning variance to build the complex. A meeting was held December 14 to unveil the proposal.
More than 100 people attended that meeting, and most of them were angered by what they heard. Smith was seeking a variance from the zoning law that required residential units to be at least 14 feet from the sidewalk. He wanted to build his complex right up to the site line so that an eight-foot brick wall would run along Lincoln Avenue with bay windows hanging over the sidewalk and two driveways. Residents worried about congestion, and about the dangers of cars suddenly appearing on the sidewalk from behind the brick walls. They felt the proposal was moving too quickly toward approval, and they wondered why they hadn’t been notified over the summer.
But there was that article in Skyline, Mellis told them.
One article? many responded. In one paper? What if they were out of town the week it ran? “I felt helpless, like I had no control over what was happening in my own neighborhood,” says resident Bob Bernstein. “Why didn’t Mellis go door-to-door? Why didn’t he send out a general letter? Why wasn’t there a large public meeting held way back in the summer?”
To make matters more confusing, Eisendrath had left office for a job with the federal government, and his replacement, Charles Bernardini, was still learning the ropes. The site itself is in a political no-man’s-land. It’s currently in the 43rd Ward, but it becomes part of Alderman Terry Gabinski’s 32nd Ward when the new ward map takes effect in 1995. “We didn’t know which alderman to appeal to–Bernardini or Gabinski,” says Maria Torres, another resident. “We had no leader.”
One of the more persistent critics at that meeting was Torres’s husband, Matt Piers. As he and others denounced the plan, Smith grew more agitated. The criticism wasn’t fair, he said. He reminded them that he had negotiated with Mellis’s group for almost six months. It wasn’t his responsibility to see that they kept abreast of what was happening in their community.
Smith refused to delay his hearing with the Zoning Board of Appeals. But after two hours of heated debate, Bernardini and Gabinski agreed to request a continuance, giving residents time to form yet another negotiating committee–this one including Piers, among others.
As the new negotiating committee met to plot strategy, Piers emerged as a leader. He’s no zoning expert, but he is an accomplished trial lawyer, and it seemed to him as though Smith had gotten the better of the old negotiating committee. As Piers saw it, Smith had shrewdly taken an absurdly extreme position so that any concessions he grudgingly offered left him where he probably wanted to be in the first place.
They decided to ask that Smith build only 18 units. “The main point was to increase the setback from Lincoln Avenue,” says Nils Stangenes, a member of the committee. They figured the fewer units he built the greater the setback would be.
But Smith refused to make any more concessions. And on February 7 he sent residents a letter telling them that they’d better accept his original plan–or else.
“I negotiated in good faith with Wrightwood Neighbors to develop a project acceptable to both sides,” Smith wrote in his letter. “But now I must go forward with the proposed development or do something else which will not require zoning variations. Therefore, I have developed an alternative proposal involving the construction of an 8 story building with 32 units which can be built as a matter of right. I continue to believe, however, that the townhouse project is more appropriate and that it is preferred by a majority of residents in the community.”
The letter sent Stangenes, Piers, and the others scurrying to the zoning code, where they discovered that Smith only needed a site-line zoning variance if he were building residential units on the ground floor. His new plan, however, called for a parking garage on the first floor, built right up to the site line, on top of which would go seven stories of condominium units set back several feet. Under the zoning code, that was permitted.
Almost 100 people attended a February 10 meeting called by Bernardini to discuss the matter. “I said, “This threat to build a mid-rise is a bluff–I don’t think he can get the financing,”‘ says Piers. “Furthermore, Smith has invalidated his zoning application, which is predicated on the idea that you need the variation to get a reasonable return on the property.’ In other words if you don’t get the variation you can’t develop the property. But here Smith was admitting that he could develop the property without the variation.”
At that point there rose from the crowd a man named Billy Singer. Once upon a time Singer was Lincoln Park’s alderman and a fiery independent. But over the years he’d evolved into a political insider–a partner at the corporate law firm of Kirkland & Ellis. He was also Smith’s lawyer on this zoning deal.
Singer told the group he was there only as a concerned resident who felt obliged to inform his neighbors that Piers was wrong. Smith would get his zoning variance. And if he didn’t, he would indeed build that mid-rise.
Piers responded immediately. “I got up and said, “You’ve got one lawyer saying this and another saying that. You’re wondering: which one should I trust? Well, in our profession we say look for motive or bias. I don’t get a dime, no matter what you do. But Mr. Singer gets lots of money.’ Billy didn’t like that. Afterward he said, “I resent you questioning my integrity.’ I said, “Come on, Bill, I was telling them what they needed to know.”‘
Despite Piers’s oration, the assemblage voted roughly 47 to 38 to endorse the proposal, prompting Bernardini to back it as well.
On February 18 the Zoning Board of Appeals heard Smith’s request. Having boned up on his zoning law, Piers represented the opposition. He subpoenaed a developer who testified that he had also been interested in the property, and that he would have maintained the structure as commercial property. The ZBA voted two to two on the matter, and Smith’s request was denied.
In the aftermath many jubilant residents hailed Piers as their hero. “If it wasn’t for Matt this would have been railroaded through,” says Bernstein. “God bless Matt Piers.”
The last anyone heard from Smith, he was sticking to his mid-rise plan, though rumor has it he’ll go with five and not eight stories. “I still wonder if he can get his financing,” says Torres. “We’d be better off if Smith would just swallow his pride and negotiate with us like he should have done in the first place.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Sue Hostetler.