The tattered sign on the chain link fence at Irving Park Road and Milwaukee Avenue is impossibly cheery. “It’s happening at The Point,’’ it says to passersby.
Precisely what is happening is open to dispute. The fence keeps people from tumbling into a giant hole that threatens to become a lake. It’s been like that since 2016 and people are upset, wondering why nothing has been built on a V-shaped site that’s one-sixth of Six Corners, once the busiest Chicago shopping district outside of downtown.
To advocates of the project proposed for the four acres, the lack of activity signifies an aldermanic abuse of power. To opponents, the hole represents local vigilance against slick developers.
Passions in the surrounding Portage Park neighborhood were stirred up when the neighborhood’s alderman, James Gardiner (45th), declared his opposition to the project last month. An estimated 150 people turned up at Six Corners on Oct. 4 to protest Gardiner’s decision.
It was a huge crowd for a spot where few pedestrians now tread. Six Corners is still well traveled by car; 70,000 vehicles per day navigate that Irving Park-Cicero-Milwaukee chokepoint, but foot traffic is low because there’s no sense of place anymore. The Sears is gone, with a redevelopment pending, another retail corner awaits a tenant and a bank once stood where the hole remains.
One of the protesters was James Suh, who owns a car wash in the neighborhood and lives nearby. Gardiner’s opposition “is very peculiar,” Suh said. “He’s been opposed from the onset, and he’s been very opaque about his reasons.” Another resident, Ellen Hill, said after meeting with the alderman that his viewpoint is “baffling.” She said, “My fear is the guy is going to get a reputation for being difficult and that nobody’s going to want to build anything here.”
But in an interview, Gardiner was quite clear about his reasons. And he’s not shrinking from a fight, even if it involves mayoral attempts to curb aldermanic control over zoning matters. The developers can’t build without a zoning change.
“I want that hole filled more than anybody in this community,” Gardiner said. “But you want to proceed with caution because the neighborhood has to look at and live with whatever gets built there for a long time. And then the developers of other sites will be seeking the same amount of density.”
He said the project, named The Point at Six Corners, is too tall for its surroundings, at 10 stories. The development, which mixes senior housing with an Aldi food store, has too little parking and its residential units may be too pricey for longtime residents, Gardiner said.
The developers canceled a meeting and weren’t available for several other dates, Gardiner said. “I’d meet with them today if I could. They keep putting off the discussions,” he said.
Clark Street Real Estate and Ryan Cos. are partners in the $130 million project, which calls for 261 senior homes ranging from independent living to memory care and 215 off-street parking spots. With 60 reserved for Aldi, Gardiner said what’s left isn’t enough for residents and employees. The developers declined to comment. Records show Clark Street paid $10 million for the site in 2014. The sale and demolition without a zoning deal may have been a costly mistake.
Gardiner took office in May; he said he shouldn’t be blamed for scrutinizing something left over from his predecessor, John Arena. Gardiner defeated Arena in this year’s election. When she took office, Mayor Lori Lightfoot gave Arena a $129,996-a-year job in the planning department, which led to a public spat. Gardiner criticized the reward for a political foe, and the first-year mayor belittled the teacher and firefighter as a “freshman” who was out of his league. Asked if she would let Gardiner block the Six Corners deal, Lightfoot replied: “The alderman overstates his ability.” In a statement issued Friday, the Lightfoot administration said it “supports a thoughtful development process that engages all stakeholders and considers the long-term impact of new construction projects, while also solving for the needs of the community.”
It could be the start of Lightfoot’s push to curtail “aldermanic prerogative,” the effective control of zoning. The practice has been assailed for its corruption and for causing segregation in housing. But what would replace it? Aldermen would still be expected to lead any fights on zoning, one of the most consequential powers of local government.
“I am proud to be a freshman alderman and to work as hard as I can for the community that raised me,” Gardiner said.
As for the mayor, he said, “I would like to think that we can take this on together as a team. My constituents are her constituents.”
It’s something Lightfoot should remember if she plans to risk political capital on a 10-story building.