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Homeowner’s yen for a yard revives debate in Lincoln Park

Property owners in the federal Sheffield historic district have butted heads on preservation, and now a resident wants to tear down an 1880s building for open space.

The building on the right, at 2028 N. Seminary Ave., dates from the 1880s and could be torn down. Patrick Nash, owner of the home on the left, has bought it for a side yard, adding to a debate about preservation in Lincoln Park.
Patrick Nash, owner of the home on the left, has bought the building on the right and wants to demolish it for a side yard.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Over the years, the Lincoln Park neighborhood has seen many fights over historic preservation. They have pitted neighbor against neighbor and produced uneasy compromises to protect limited stretches while leaving most patches open to change.

Preservationists have paid close attention to the Sheffield area on Lincoln Park’s western edge. Parts of it can take visitors back to the late 19th century. But when cheap money sloshes through real estate, things happen.

In 2019, the advocacy group Landmarks Illinois counted 350 properties that have been destroyed or significantly altered in Sheffield since the 1990s, about a third of its building stock.

People tear down homes and combine lots to build something bigger. They replace multiple units with single-family homes, which some contend disrespects the neighborhood’s character.

Plopped into this little pot of tension is a Sheffield homeowner, Patrick Nash. He lives on Seminary Avenue, and he’s bought the three-flat next door with the intent to tear it down.

He hit a local nerve because the three-flat was flagged in a historic resources survey as potentially worth saving. And he’s told people he wants the property as a side yard, a garden for him and his family to enjoy. It offends those who believe that where housing exists, it should stay.

“What is being done is counterintuitive to the express desires of the city today,” said Lisa DiChiera, advocacy director for Landmarks Illinois.

She cited the city’s need to expand and diversify its housing stock and to maximize tax revenue.

“From a land-use perspective, this is just bad planning,” she said.

The neighborhood is known as the Sheffield National Register Historic District, a federal honorific that gives no protection against demolition. It has made her group’s list of “most endangered historic places in Illinois.”

Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, called the teardown plan “shameful” and said it reinforces the need for a deeper city review of potential landmarks.

The building in question, at 2028 N. Seminary, carries an “orange” rating under Chicago’s classification of older or historic buildings. It doesn’t protect it but puts a 90-day hold on any demolition order, providing time to get people to talk. Otherwise, the city can do little.

Nash declined to speak with me on the record, which is his right, but it leaves me to conjecture about his side of the question. Some guesses: He’s not breaking any law, nor building anything schlocky. His yard might even beautify a neighborhood that prizes its annual garden walk. And the pandemic has taught us all to appreciate more fresh air.

This will be one expensive side yard. Nash, a partner at the law firm Kirkland & Ellis, paid $1.26 million for the property in September, records show. The city’s hold on his demolition permit expires in late January.

Landmarks Illinois research shows the Queen Anne-style home was built in 1888 for John Ramcke, a leader of the construction trades who apparently moved a few years later. A listing from when the building hit the market this year said it was being offered “as is,” suggesting it needed a gut rehab.

Lincoln Park Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), whose office has spoken with Nash, takes a middle ground here. “I don’t oppose the notion that people want to have yards,” she said.

But she stoutly backs neighborhood preservation and said if people are alarmed by teardowns, a strong majority of property owners need to favor landmarking a group of properties, which has happened in many spots in the 43rd Ward.

Smith recalled her predecessor as alderperson, Vi Daley, lost a battle to get a broad landmark district in Sheffield. People often oppose that out of fear it will hurt property values or make their homes more expensive to repair. The experience in Lincoln Park suggests otherwise, Smith said.

Brian Comer, president of the Sheffield Neighborhood Association, said he relayed to Nash his board’s concern about changes to the historic character, but there’s nothing to stop the Seminary demolition.

“This is a wonderful springboard to have another conversation in our neighborhood about preservation,” Comer said.

A self-described “census geek,” Smith has pored over numbers showing her wealthy ward losing its two- and three-flats and gaining single-family homes. She said she has worked to diversify housing stock by encouraging developments such as Lincoln Common, the old Children’s Memorial Hospital property, with its 538 rentals. Just outside the Sheffield area is the huge Lincoln Yards development, which one day may bring in thousands of new residents.

It all puts Nash and his side yard in perspective. Cities change, and it’s hard to freeze in time any part of them or to legislate against wealthy people buying elbow room. The rich pay for a good portion of the public services around here. Chicago benefits from keeping them happy — and inside city limits.