NIMBY nuggets to chew on

The UIC Newman Center, a Catholic student organization, is very intent on building student housing on Emerald and 14th Streets. Their most recent iteration is a 5 story building, with a partial 6th story, that would house about 260 students, designed by the architecture firm Booth Hansen. Chris Hill, a former City of Chicago Commissioner of Planning, and now a partner in Chicago Realty Company, is consulting on the project. The JP II Newman Center is listed on his company’s website’s project list as a “New, 7-story, 400 bed dorm” with a price tag of $45 million. UIC Newman Center recently claimed the project to be a $32 million investment with a 14 to 18 month construction phase.

The UIC Newman Center contends that 16,000 of UIC’s 28,000 students are Catholic. Twenty eight thousand is UIC’s enrollment. It is unclear how the estimate that 16,000 of them are Catholic was made or how accurate the figure is.

Several years ago, neighbors of the UIC Newman Center on Morgan Street resoundingly rejected the Center’s proposal to build student housing on Newman Center’s parking lot across Morgan Street from the UIC Richard J. Daley Library. Alderman Danny Solis intervened on their behalf. Since then Alderman Solis has become Chairman of the Chicago City Council Committee on Zoning. Newman Center executed a contract to purchase property at Emerald and 14th Street contingent upon a change in zoning. Alderman Solis’s letter of this January states that he will require “majority support from residents affected by the proposal, defined as those living within 250 feet of the proposed site.” The residents on Emerald Street live in very nice family homes and approximately 300 to 900 feet from 1,520 UIC students living in existing UIC student housing.

The UIC Newman Center proposal raises legitimate questions for our community about how much influence, what kind of influence and how we best organize to skillfully exert it on how our community is planned and developed. This is important because our community is dominated by large tracts of vacant land controlled by very large institutions. Roosevelt Square is roughly 90 remaining acres of vacant land under contract with the Chicago Housing Authority to be developed. The CHA is the single largest landlord in Chicago. Similarly, the Illinois Medical District, a creation of the Illinois General Assembly, controls very large tracts of vacant land. The IMD is controlled by the State of Illinois, City of Chicago and Cook County. It was finally forced to reform by impending default on a large bond issue due to decades of structural mismanagement, a near complete lack of vision, and less than skillful, self-interested concern about it by the large member institutions such as Rush University Medical Center, the UIC, John H. Stroger, Jr. Hospital and others.

Recently, a well respected Chicago developer, Mesa Development, expressed interest in purchasing property on the north east corner of Taylor St. and Ashland Ave. to build a Walgreens. The property’s part of the Medical District Apartment complex. It is owned by an affiliate entity of Guggenheim, a global investment firm with over $160 billion in assets under management. It is also part of a very old Planned Unit Development that gives a veto to the Campus Green townhome association which recently exercised that veto.

Not in my backyard is a common refrain heard in Chicago. In some cases the NIMBY sentiment is legitimate and in others it is very damaging. Wherein rests the balance between legitimate concerns and NIMBYism in these two community case studies of Newman Center and Walgreens? What are the appropriate questions and information to determine that? Some food for thought for these two issues:

In an interview published in Crain’s Chicago Business, April 14, 2011, Robert Bronstein, founder and president of Scion Group LLC, which owns just under 8,000 units of university housing in five states, had this to say:

“In a big city, particularly in Chicago, where there’s very good public transportation, the students might not want to live near the school. . . . The toughest building we’ve ever done is right across the street from the University of Illinois at Chicago in the West Loop. We struggled to get UIC students to live at Automatic Lofts, 410 S. Morgan St. What we found is that the UIC students live all over town. We ultimately ended up master-leasing the building to a school that wasn’t even UIC. (Illinois Institute of Art-Chicago, a private, for-profit at 350 N. Orleans St.) It was a harsh lesson learned. . . .We got lucky, actually, because we found another school to take the whole building.”

The Catholic Church is tax exempt and would be in the real estate business in competition with UIC, a state institution, for UIC’s students who might otherwise live in one of UIC’s nearby dorms, an apartment on Taylor Street, a dorm in the Automatic Lofts or in Lincoln or Wicker Park for that matter. According to the Newman Center, UIC’s dorms have a 3% vacancy rate. What are the obligations of UIC and the UIC Newman Center to provide the residents of Emerald Street with assurances that this is the best use, and a financially sound deal, for this property, particularly when the plan for this property apparently previously called for townhomes and condominiums when many of the residents on Emerald Street were purchasing their homes? Should UIC take a public position on this issue since it is after all being driven by the UIC Newman Center? Are the concerns of nearby residents outweighed by the fact that having additional residential density in our community may be good for businesses and may make our community more vibrant? Are all their concerns legitimate? Your answers might depend on where you live. How sympathetic to these concerns are the residents on Morgan Street? These are all challenging questions.

Are the concerns of the residents of Campus Green about a Walgreens on the corner near their townhomes all legitimate ones? The two small flower planters in front of the Walgreens on North Michigan Avenue near the Wrigley Building and Trump Tower were constantly filled with large amounts litter that remained for very long periods of time over the recent two springs and summers that I dated a woman who lived next to the Wrigley Building. It took me months to get CVS corporate to install a wrought-iron fence at their store on Racine and Roosevelt to keep people waiting at the bus stop there from trampling and killing the nice landscape CVS installed. Some of it died anyway and will likely remain dead until someone devotes significant time to getting CVS to replace it in the spring. Does easy access to the convenience of a Walgreens within walking distance or a short bike or car ride for many of us outweigh the concerns of Campus Green residents?

Most developers are not unethical and business interests, like Walgreens and CVS, and the developers who build their stores and our homes, are important to Chicago’s vitality. C4C is working to create a community model for how we can, as a community, effectively and strategically impact community development. Asking the appropriate questions and gathering input from the many smart people in our community with competence in public education, planning, architecture, public policy and other areas important to urban life will be a large part of that.