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Wicker Park pushes for transit-oriented development

UPDATED – A four-year effort by community and business groups around Wicker Park in favor of mixed-use, transit-oriented development at a major intersection seems to be paying off.

Developers who’ve purchased the former site of a Pizza Hut on the southeast corner of Ashland and Division were planning a one-story bank drive-through – the antithesis of the vision on the 2009 Wicker Park-Bucktown Master Plan.  That community-driven plan called for greater density, transit-oriented development, expanded pedestrian districts, and “a mixed-use development providing a street wall of activity” at the intersection, which surrounds a public square known as the Polish Triangle.

After the East Village Association expressed its disappointment – and began posting letters to the alderman from a wide range of community and business groups on its website – developers came back with a two-story, all-commercial concept.  EVA “reiterated our interest in seeing something more suited to the site,” said Scott Rappe, an architect who cochairs EVA’s committee on planning, preservation and development.

Last week developers came back to EVA with a proposal which meets many of the goals set by the group for the site: a signficant presence with maximum density and mixed use that’s oriented to pedestrians and transit users.  (The intersection houses a CTA station and is served by several bus lines.)

There’s still the bank with a drive-through in the back, which residents fear will increase congestion and risk to pedestrians.  But developers are now proposing five stories of rental housing atop two stories of commercial, and they’re hoping to get parking requirements for the housing waived.

While EVA hasn’t taken a position, Rappe said he was impressed with the transit-oriented housing component.  “It’s a big commitment, a big challenge,” he said. [EVA has posted a letter listing some remaining concerns.]

He thinks the cavalcade of letters made the difference in demonstrating community support for a more ambitious project.

There are letters from chambers of commerce for Wicker Park-Bucktown and West Town, the latter expressing concern that a one-story stand-alone structure will contribute to “generic structures, chain stores and satellite banks” proliferating on commercial corners.  There are letters from realtor Carol Mrowka and from neighborhood activist Marjorie Isaacson, who recalled that objections to the Pizza Hut were “met with contempt” at City Hall 20 years ago.

There are letters from architects located in the area, including Patrick and Judith Danaher and Jeanne Gang (whose studio is across the street), arguing that “low-density, stagnant islands encircled by concrete do little to connect or contribute to the life of the neighborhood.”

There are letters from Wicker Park-Bucktown emphasizing the community’s master plan, from the Wicker Park Committee, from the Center for Neighborhood Technology stressing the importance of transit-oriented development in reducing emissions, and from Near North Montessori, which is trying to promote “green choices” and sustainable lifestyles for its students.

Local First Chicago wrote to underscore another recommendation of the community’s master plan – “protect local businesses and discourage global retailers.”  The group called on Alderman Joe Moreno to negotiate a community benefits agreement with developers guaranteeing 50 percent of retail space goes to local independent businesses.

There’s still a way to go before anything is built, but so far the story shows how a community united around a vision can influence development decisions in a positive direction.

 

Note: Marjorie Isaacson was misidentified in the original post.

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Category: development, Wicker Park

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