Monday, September 29, 2008

Wicker Park's NIMBY Envy

posted by chicago pop

The other day a copy of the West Town Chicago Journal: News of Bucktown, Wicker Park, Ukrainian Village fell in my lap.

Imagine my surprise when I beheld the following elements:

Headline: "Hotel Opposed for Now"

Front Page Human Interest Story: Crystal Fencke, Contributing Reporter

Editorial: "Show Hotel Project Plans. Lack of Communication Shows Lack of Respect."

So when did the Herald go into syndication? It's got a hotel. It's got opposition to the hotel. It's got an editorial channelling Pat Dowell channelling Aretha Franklin ("Respect"). It's even got an article by Herald contributor Crystal Fencke.

Do you think the folks in Wicker Park could come up with their own neighborhood controversies?

You can check out the skinny here:

A developer planning to convert the Northwest Tower [pictured above] into a hotel has filed for a special permit needed to go forward with the project, leaving the area's alderman, the city's planning department and community organizations that typically vet such projects in the dark.

Thirty-second Ward Alderman Scott Waguespack said he likes the idea of establishing a hotel in the 77-foot tower at North and Milwaukee, but he does not have enough information to support the application for a special use permit that MCM, the building's owner, has requested from the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Waguespack said his office did not know the ZBA would consider such a request from MCM until neighbors to the proposed project, who spotted signs announcing the permit application in the tower's windows, notified him. MCM did not present its plans to area community groups, he said.

"We said, until you come up with a development plan we're not going to move forward on it," Waugespack said. "You can't just throw up a hotel."

And this has got to be a move taken from the Hyde Park playbook:

Waguespack said he wants MCM to complete a traffic study for the site and a feasibility study that would demonstrate the need for a hotel in the area...[he] also wants to know who the potential operators of the hotel are.

All in all, this seems like a pale imitation of the Doctors Hospital controversy. It's just a clumsy developer, it's not the Borg Collective otherwise known as the University of Chicago. Alderman Waguespack likes the idea of a hotel, is setting out some guidelines in advance (even calling for a traffic study before the NIMBYs do!) and the Northwest Tower, unlike the old Doctors Hospital, is clearly a building worth preserving.

These folks actually seem to want development at this location, even if the current candidate seems to be a bit obtuse on the PR front.

Still, the facts are these: there is no permit, there is no hotel operator, there is just an intention.

The question here seems to be, unlike the Doctors Hospital case, what is the proper process? Do you go to community groups before you have a project lined up (operator, permit process underway), when nothing may really come of it, or do you go to them after you have at least gotten the process moving with some probability of being able to execute?

At this point, Wicker Park's hotel controversy seems to be much ado about nothing. If real plans are drawn up, with a permit to act on them, and the community groups are called in, then we'll see how it plays out, and whether it's worthy of comparison with our own Doctors Hospital.


Brendan said...

Hmm...77-foot tower? I'm guessing there was a 1 left off the front of that, as the Coyote is something like 15 stories without including the little turret on the top. Typo police!

Richard Gill said...

Perhaps some of Hyde Parks notable NIMBYs would consider decamping for Wicker Park and showing those minor leaguers how to really lay waste to a neighborhood. Hey, nobody's even proposing to actually build anything at that site, nor to enlarge what's already there. They're talking about re-use of an intact structure. What kind of a NIMBY challenge is that? It's NAMBY PAMBY NIMBY, that's what it is.

But, as long as the Hyde Park NIMBYs are up there, on the North Side, they could show the locals how to set up a smokescreen or two. Like, how do we know the building's use as a hotel won't make it cast bigger shadows over our backyard decks? Or maybe if it's a hotel, it will change the air currents. Our NIMBYs could even try to vote the precinct dry. If they can pull that off in Wicker Park, we have truly underestimated them.

So, Alderman Waguespack, take our NIMBYs. Please.

chicago pop said...

I'm guessing there was a 1 left off the front of that, as the Coyote is something like 15 stories without including the little turret on the top.

brendan: let them know.

Anonymous said...

I don't get the calls for "feasibility (sp?) studies". Why would a commercial developer want to open a hotel in a spot that demonstrated no demand? They don't usually build or undertake major renovation/conversion to lose money...

I admit I'm not an expert though.

chicago pop said...

Re feasibility/market studies, I tend to think this is a legit request. All you have to do is go look at the Co-Op on 47th Street to see what happens when you get your market analysis wrong. Or the motionless cranes on the towers downtown if you're speculating on a real estate bubble.

In this case it seems like a way to throw a wrench in the works because a lot of the building is empty and/or rented for marginal uses. The ground floor, last time I checked, was a cell phone shop. Would a feasibility study demonstrate that the Coyote should remain this way?

Same with the traffic study. The building to 2 steps from the L, a straight shot down Milwaukee to the Loop, and cabs are all over the place.

Either you let the building stand empty like a very interesting piece of the stage set for Blade Runner, or you put something in it that will require people coming into and out of it by foot and in wheeled vehicles.

Richard Gill said...

In cases of existing parcels of land or existing buildings already in private hands (either pre-existing or new owner), the process has to be for the owner and/or developer to first propose a project. This is their right as the owner. It would be absurd and unworkable to require that "the community" first come forth with an idea. Nobody in their right mind would invest in property, simply to wait for starry-eyed neighbors to propose uses for the property (most of which would never produce any kind of return on investment). And, within limits of the law, neither the neighbors nor the local pols get to decide who owns what. Even the right to know in advance who's buying and selling would stop things in their tracks (which is just what the NIMBYs and BANANAs would prefer).

If undeveloped, unzoned land is involved, then local residents can get involved with their local government in determining zoning and land use. That sets the ground rules. But later on, they don't get to micromanage the developer. If the zoning allows for (among other uses) a hotel, the developer can build or open a hotel. "The market" for a hotel is the developer's problem.

It is interesting that these calls for initial and collective decision making on property uses come from private owners "who already have theirs" and who would probably go nuts if the property in question was theirs.

chicago pop said...

How dare anyone get a permit from the City without asking the alderman or community groups first!

To add to Richard's point, I seem to recall that back in the boom days, when there was talk of building a condo high rise up in Indian Village, Preckwinkle told the local NIMBY-folks to calm down, because the developer hadn't even begun the permit process.

The assumption being that you're not serious until you get permit approval in motion. What's the point of having meetings before then?

Anonymous said...

Pop, good point on the 47th Co-Op analogy, I hadn't considered that.

chicago pop said...

I think you do have a point re feasibility studies, especially regarding new construction, which involve much higher risks (read: Drs Hospital)

With something like this, asking for a feasibility stud when the building is already in place seems like it has more potential to just be a monkey-wrench tactic on the part of aldermen or obstructionists.

Richard Gill said...

Calling all NIMBYs:
Michael Reese Hospital is filing for bankruptcy and is expected to close by the end of the year. This unsightly and nondescript historic structure is rated Condition Heliotrope by the self-appointed agency SAVE (Save All Vulgar Edifices).

The hospital site may or may not become an Olympic Village venue, but you must seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to save the old building for adaptive re-use and to preserve tons of irreplaceable historic toxic medical waste.

According to SAVE, a local developer has proposed a replacement structure that will disrupt air currents, be available for Bar Mitzvahs, and (between 3:27pm and 4:06pm on March 14 and September 16 of alternate odd-numbered years) will cast a shadow over the adjacent Metra tracks). DON'T LET THIS HAPPEN.

Arise, ye NIMBYs! Forget Doctors Hospital. Michael Reese Hospital needs your immediate attention.
{Michael Reese Hospital is conveniently located between Hyde Park and Wicker Park, constituting a convenient way-station and rest stop for plotting NIMBY mischief.}

Jennifer said...

Richard Gill wins. That's gold.

pc said...

a feasibility study IS a good idea in this case. this particular developer has a poor track record in the neighborhood and has never had much success with commercial space. I'm not sure where the money is coming from, either; his firm is trying to unload many condo units built as the boom was waning.

several reputed hotel operators have reportedly spurned their offers, in part because they don't think it's feasible to squeeze a profitable hotel into <40,000 square feet. (the developer controls the land around the building and could expand it, but is choosing not to.) I don't blame them, either -- the "back of the house" takes up far more space than you'd think, and hotels benefit from certain economies of scale.

what it comes down to is that I actually agree with the NIMBYs on this one (and I got unceremoniously tossed from the neighborhood organization for being insufficiently NIMBY): the building deserves a better preservation plan. the scheme, as presented, is half baked, and this guy should not be able to go in and ruin a true landmark.

pc said...

BTW, found my old comment in the course of searching. Anyhow, wanted to add for the record: the traffic study was not requested for the hotel, it was for the 140-car parking garage he wanted to build next door (by tearing down the existing loft building). This public parking garage would have been accessed solely through the alley under the "L," 100' from a (no kidding) choked intersection. The study showed that there would be 500+ additional turning movements a day into that alley, which would not have helped matters very much.