Jefferson Park residents unleashed their anger Thursday about a proposal to build a 100-unit mixed-income housing complex in the heart of their quiet residential neighborhood.
The Chicago Plan Commission approved only that portion of the project that includes a self-storage facility operated by Life Storage, which owns the property at 5150 N. Northwest Hwy.
The vote did not include a companion proposal to build a seven-story residential building — with 20 market-rate units and 80 set aside for low-income residents, including veterans and those with CHA vouchers.
But that didn’t stop area residents from showing up in force to unload on Ald. John Arena (45th), who has championed the housing project.
Arena has taken a political beating during overflow neighborhood hearings amid protests that his twice-vanquished aldermanic challenger, John Garrido, has helped orchestrate.
On Thursday, Arena took it on the chin again from a determined group of residents, many of whom took the day off from work knowing they would have to do it again when the Plan Commission votes on the housing part of the project.
They argued that the “oversized” building would change the character of their quiet residential neighborhood, strain their already overcrowded schools, reduce their property values and trigger an influx in crime.
“Ald. Arena has circumvented his own community zoning process. He’s repeatedly lied to the community and manipulated the system to eliminate community input on this development,” Garrido said.
Nobody dared to mention the issue of race. But the mere discussion of crime was viewed by some as a code word for race in the overwhelmingly white neighborhood that local residents consider a suburb within the city.
“What confuses me . . . is that people who claim to take pride in their community . . . are advocating to keep blight,” said Kathleen O’Brien, a disability rights advocate for Access Living who favors the project because it provides housing for people with disabilities near a transit center. “The only reason why I think that could be is because it has nothing to do with storage.”
Victoria Aviles, board member of the newly formed group that calls itself Northwest Side Unite, insisted that race has nothing to do with it.
“The alderman — with this development as well as the other three either already approved or going through — would bring 400 new units with high-density living into this neighborhood that is not that kind of neighborhood,” Aviles said.
“Today we’re talking about the plan for a 75-foot storage facility, which is 7.5 stories equivalent on a residential site. We don’t have buildings like that in our neighborhood,” she said. “We don’t want buildings like that in our neighborhood. Same with the residential. 100 units in a 7.5 story building.”
Pressed to describe what she is afraid of, Aviles said, “Our schools are already woefully overcrowded. It’s not fair to the children in the neighborhood. It’s not fair to the children who will be coming to the neighborhood.”
Richard Gengler, who lives about 200 yards from the site, said the proposed building is “way too big” for the residential community. After weeks of canvassing, he argued that “over 80 percent” of residents within 400 feet of the property oppose the project. He argued that the community has been “cut out” of the process.
“I’m worried about congestion, overcrowding. Our schools are at 130 percent capacity. . . . Our police are undermanned. We’re a single-family type community. Our infrastructure is already overburdened. We can’t take buildings like that,” Gengler said.
When it was Arena’s turn to speak, he took the high road.
He simply argued that an underutilized block located between a “struggling auto-centric retail district to the north and a struggling mixed-use retail, residential and transit district to the south” could use the shot in the arm.
“This planned development balances the needs of the owners today while giving the community . . . the opportunity to leverage the city’s $25 million investment in the Jefferson Park transit center,” Arena told the Plan Commission.
After the vote, Arena was asked whether he believes opposition to the housing portion of the project was driven by race.
“Some people have made some assumptions about what housing — whether it’s here or in other areas — will bring to the community,” he said.
“Maybe it is for some people,” Arena added. “I can’t read individuals minds and I won’t try. All I can say is, their concerns about height are being heard. We are trying to mitigate that.”