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Zoning panel backs NW Side housing deal over alderperson’s opposition

The vote in support of a project backed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot marked a rare setback for alderpersons used to having veto power over developments within their wards.

A rendering shows a view looking northeast of the building proposed for 8535 W. Higgins Road. The design is by FitzGerald Associates.
A rendering shows a view looking northeast of the building proposed for 8535 W. Higgins Road. The design is by FitzGerald Associates.
Glenstar Properties

Striking a blow for the mayor against aldermanic veto power over zoning in their wards, a City Council committee Tuesday endorsed a 297-unit residential development near O’Hare Airport that backers said would provide affordable options in a community that lacks them.

The project, planned at 8535 W. Higgins Road, had the strong support of Mayor Lori Lightfoot, whose housing commissioner addressed Council members on its behalf. The 12-5 vote by the Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards sends the matter to the full Council for consideration Wednesday.

The vote was a rare override of the wishes of the local alderperson. The project is in the 41st Ward of Ald. Anthony Napolitano, who said it will add to traffic congestion, burden already crowded schools and hurt landlords who struggle to find renters in small buildings.

He also said the mayoral push was a “complete overstep” of aldermanic authority and sets a precedent to be used in other wards. “Your community and you have no say any longer,” he told the panel.

The developer of the $91 million complex, Glenstar Properties, has set aside 59 of the units to be classified as affordable and offered at reduced rents under city ordinance.

Housing Commissioner Marisa Novara, speaking to the zoning committee, said the development would provide needed housing for workers at O’Hare and others who need close access to public transit. It’s near the CTA’s Cumberland stop on the Blue Line.

“We need people in these jobs. We need them to be able to access housing they can afford, and we can’t have them traveling two hours to get there. This is a citywide concern,” she said.

Novara said the project fulfills the city’s policy of spreading affordable housing to more areas. “Our stance is that all communities need to contribute to meeting the city’s affordable housing needs — all communities,” she said.

Lightfoot’s office said the affordable rentals “will help O’Hare Airport workers who now will have another housing option close to work, fueling a key Chicago economic engine. The development is also an important step toward addressing Chicago’s longstanding racial and economic segregation.”

Liz Butler, an attorney representing Glenstar, said the proposed seven-story building fits with the scale of its neighbors, which include the Marriott Chicago O’Hare hotel. The site’s current zoning allows offices, but Butler said there is little demand there.

Citing city statistics, Butler said that in the surrounding parts of Chicago, 20% of the housing is affordable to those earning up to $55,920 a year, which is 60% of the region’s median income for a family of four. Citywide, 36% of housing is considered affordable.

She also said the area has no units enrolled in the city’s affordable housing program.

Napolitano countered that there are 7,500 apartments within a seven-block radius of the site. “The traffic in this area is unbearable due to the overpopulation,” he said.

The project drew broad support from groups such as the Chicago Federation of Labor and the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. Their representatives spoke during a public comment portion of the remote meeting, praising the development for providing needed housing and for its estimated 228 construction jobs. The CFL has an ownership stake in Sun-Times Media.

Napolitano said those views aren’t in line with those of most 41st Ward residents. He said he’d prefer a commercial project that would generate more permanent jobs.

But the support from citywide groups — and the matter’s appearance on the committee’s agenda — showed the mayor’s office and progressive alderpersons locked up the votes to push the item through. For Lightfoot, it was a milestone in her campaign to curb the tight control alderpersons enjoy over zoning and other ward decisions.

A similar Glenstar plan for the Higgins Road property, but with a smaller set-aside for affordable housing, was voted down in the zoning committee in 2018.

Although the matter was controversial, alderpersons were cordial in their debate. Supporters of the project said Napolitano was in a tough position politically. Napolitano, in turn, apologized to colleagues for making them cast a hard vote on something they’ve previously turned down.

Ald. Harry Osterman (48th), chairman of the Council’s housing committee, said the project — being in a commercial area with a highway and a forest preserve nearby — will have little impact on surrounding homes and will serve a critical need. The site also borders Park Ridge. “I think once this building is built, people will look back and say, ‘Why were we arguing about this building for all these years?’” he said.

Talked stayed away from alleged racist fears, which some say contributes to affordable-housing opposition on the Northwest Side. When the Chicago Plan Commission backed the Glenstar zoning in August, Novara took heat for saying opposition to affordable housing has reinforced segregation.