How one apartment project on the Far Northwest Side created divisions on affordable housing, congestion and more – Chicago Tribune



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Biking around her Far Northwest Side neighborhood, Monica Dillon’s eyes sometimes linger past a nondescript parking lot east of O’Hare International Airport, squeezed between the Kennedy Expressway, some office buildings and a Marriott hotel.

Plans to build a $91 million apartment complex with some affordable units on the Higgins Road lot west of Cumberland Avenue have stirred controversies stretching throughout Chicago, including City Hall.

The project being spearheaded by Glenstar O’Hare LLC has inflamed long-held arguments about affordable housing and segregation while also becoming a bit of a testing ground on aldermanic prerogative, the Chicago tradition that has given aldermen massive sway over development and other decisions in their wards.

And just last week there was another update — the Chicago City Council approved a first-of-its-kind measure making the seven-story building eligible for a special tax incentive under a 2021 state law meant to bolster affordable housing in areas that lack such options. Of the 297 units that will be built in the complex, 59 will be below-market.

Dillon, a founding member of the Northwest Side-based group Neighbors for Affordable Housing, has followed the twists and turns about the plan and supports it as a low-cost option for working-class Chicagoans, especially those who work at O’Hare. But she wonders what could have been for her adult daughter who five years ago wanted to stay closer to her family but eventually had to move because she couldn’t find an apartment she could afford.

“I just wish there would have been some options here at the time, and I know we’re not the only family,” said Dillon, 63. “In terms of affordable housing, there really was none.”

But the plans have not been embraced by all in the 41st Ward and its neighborhoods filled with postwar bungalows and ranch-style homes. Though the complex would be located in a far stretch of the city next to offices and hotels bordering Park Ridge, residents say they fear it will congest traffic and overcrowd schools.

John Frano, who lives about a mile away in Oriole Park, said the apartment complex will create too much bustle in a section of the city known for being more serene and spacious.

“I don’t like traffic,” said Frano, a 45-year-old Chicago police officer. “I have nothing against affordable housing. I don’t care if somebody lives in affordable housing.”

While residents say their opposition stems from concerns about congestion and keeping the lot where the complex will be built zoned for commercial uses rather than residential, the issue of affordable housing still permeates much of the debate.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has made investing in affordable housing a cornerstone of her administration, including bringing it to areas of the city where it is missing. Indeed, the dearth of affordable units in parts of the city has even piqued the interest of the federal government. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is investigating whether Chicago aldermen have used aldermanic prerogative over the years to shoot down certain projects and keep out poor people of color.

While Lightfoot during her first term has had minimal success defeating aldermanic prerogative, one exception is the Glenstar development. Late last year, the City Council approved the plan over the objections of the ward’s alderman, who warned his fellow council members they were establishing a dangerous precedent that empowered any mayor to overrule local aldermanic control on development issues.

Last week, the project secured another victory when the City Council approved an ordinance designating the property as a “low-affordability community.” That classification makes the building eligible for a tax break initiative in which the Cook County assessor’s office offers reductions in assessment values for buildings that meet certain affordable housing requirements. Glenstar’s property qualified because the owner agreed to set aside at least 20% of units as affordable for 30 years.

Under the plan, for the first three years after the project is completed, the Glenstar property will be eligible for a freeze in its assessed value, resulting in significant property tax savings. That incentive will then steadily decrease for the next 27 years.

Liz Butler, an attorney representing Glenstar, said in a statement that the tax incentives will mean about $23.5 million in savings over 30 years, though it estimates the cost of providing the affordable units to be $52 million.

”The tax savings helps to partially offset the cost of the affordable component of the project, making it possible to provide these units, but by no means results in a financial windfall,” Butler said.

Housing committee Chair Ald. Harry Osterman, 48th, said during a hearing earlier this month that he hopes the “first inning of this new law” shows it will become a positive tool for creating more affordable housing. That sentiment was echoed by the city’s Department of Housing Commissioner, Marisa Novara, who said the incentives are welcome in a city with “profound segregation.”

But the alderman of the ward where the project will be located, Ald. Anthony Napolitano, 41st, said the Glenstar proposal will be a “monstrous development.”

“Many of you here cheer the tax the rich philosophy, but now your ‘yes’ vote is going to once again benefit a rich developer by supporting a tax break,” Napolitano said during the committee hearing.

Retired Chicago police Sgt. Salvatore Reina, a longtime owner of a two-flat in Oriole Park, said he opposes the Glenstar tax break partly because it feels unfair to smaller landlords like him. He added that he worries about having to bid against the potentially lower rents in the future complex.

“I’ve owned my apartment building since ’93,” Reina said. “I lived in it. I worked my butt off bringing this thing around. Am I going to get a tax break if I lower my rents?”

Reina said he thinks once the project breaks ground, the dominoes for similar large residential developments will fall, and the community will lose what he described as its residential charm.

“These neighborhoods are not made for massive multiunit buildings,” Reina said. “When you bring more people in, other issues are going to arise with that too. Who knows what they are? Some could just be quality-of-life issues.”

Dillon, the Neighbors for Affordable Housing member, said it is fitting the first development to benefit from a new City Council designation intended to promote affordable housing is in the 41st Ward, where she said “discrimination and segregation” has historically kept out low-income residents.

She cited Napolitano’s recent attempts to stymie the Glenstar project via aldermanic prerogative as what she said was one example of why the ward remains mostly white.

In response, Napolitano said Dillon’s remarks were “pure nonsense” and that the prime reservation over Glenstar is overcrowding. He added that there are hundreds of vacant units in the neighborhood.

“People just say whatever they can to make it a hot-button topic,” Napolitano said. “They don’t ever care about what the residents of the neighborhood actually want.”

But Dillon said the result will be “beautiful” for a ward that is ready for change.

“After 150 years of no affordable housing, don’t you think we should start with the 41st Ward?” Dillon said. “This is exactly the community we should be starting with to make up for all the units that were shut down by aldermanic prerogative and NIMBY (Not In My Backyard)-ism.”

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ayin@chicagotribune.com

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