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Zapata zapped? Agencies fight back

It’s a joint effort that reflects the best thinking of NCP’s two high-achieving Northwest Side community groups.

It’s comprehensive—seeking to provide green and affordable housing, create jobs, enliven a tired arterial street and stabilize enrollment at nearby schools. It even had, once upon a time, the enthusiastic support of City Hall.

Photo: John McCarron

Surveying this lot where one of the Zapata buildings would be erected are Efrain Vargas (in cap), director of housing and economic development for Bickerdike, and Luis Padial, communications coordinator.

Yet Zapata Apartments—a proposal to build 66 subsidized units on three vacant lots near the border of Humboldt Park and Logan Square—also shows the risk and rancor that goes with brick-and-mortar community development in these uncertain times.

Hard times, they are, in which property values are falling, public anxiety is rising and public officials are, well, playing it safe.

Alderman Rey Colon (35th), for one, assured a community gathering last May he was working hard with the city “to make sure we get the zoning and the funding” necessary to make “affordable housing on Armitage Avenue a reality.”

More recently, however, after a group of nearby property owners began protesting the development—and filed a lawsuit to block it—Colon has become more circumspect. He says he still supports Zapata in concept but suggests it may need to be scaled back.

The problem, Colon says, is that the lawsuit calls into question the legality of the up-zoning approved last year by the City Council. The city gets sued all the time, he admitted, but in this case the record will show the city’s own zoning department did not concur with the change. Such matters can often be negotiated, he said, but it’s unlikely Zapata’s opponents will settle for anything but a clean kill.

Meanwhile, said Colon, “the city is not bending over backwards” to untangle the mess – not after Mayor Richard M. Daley got an earful from Zapata opponents last year at a public hearing on the city budget.

“I was hopeful they’d be able to get [city funding] this year,” Colon said. “But lately that light at the end of the tunnel is beginning to look like a pinhole.”

Homeowner and Developer Protesters
To be sure, Logan Square and Humboldt Park long have been ground zero for blowups between blue-collar renters and upscale condo developers. In the past these mainly involved protests by the working poor against displacement by condo converters.

The rendering above shows the proposed building at 3228 W. Armitage, while the rendering below shows the proposed building at 3431 W. Armitage.

Only now, with property values diving and hundreds of condos going unsold, it’s the homeowners and developers doing the protesting. Many fear subsidized housing will further depress property values, not just by adding to the overall housing supply, but by bringing in “undesirables” prone to crime, drug addiction and general slovenliness.

Colon said he flatly rejects that premise and, like other Zapata backers, asserts there is no credible evidence to support such fears. Yet the anxiety persists, as reflected in the j’accuse tone of overheated Web bloggers posting on the issue.

And one more thing is irrefutable: time is not on the side of Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation, the NCP flagship in Humboldt Park that was to build Zapata. So confident was Bickerdike of the city’s assurances on financing that, in 2007, just before the real estate market tanked, they borrowed $3 million to buy two large vacant lots at 3228 and 3431 W. Armitage Avenue. Now it must pay $16,000-a-month in interest, plus other holding costs, just to keep the deal alive.

Joy Aruguete, Bickerdike executive director, is unapologetic about that leap of faith. Back then, she explains, the market was booming, condo developers were eyeing both sites, and the landowner wasn’t selling options-to-buy. He wanted market price and he wanted cash.

Changing City Commitments
What’s more, said Aruguete, the then-incumbent heads of the key city departments, Lori Healey at Planning & Development and Jack Markowski at Housing, assured Bickerdike there would be sufficient federal tax credits, federal HOME program loans and grants, and perhaps even property tax increment (TIF) financing.

“Lo and behold both departments had a change in leadership, and then they were merged,” complains Aruguete. “Now we don’t seem to be a priority.”

Photo: Gordon Walek

Evidence of the demand for affordable housing on the near Northwest Side came a year ago when more than 5,100 people applied for slots in project-based Section 8 properties owned by Bickerdike, with lines wrapping around the block.

Then again, the city does have other demands on its housing resources, such as the heavily subsidized mixed-income communities rising where public housing high-rises once stood.

But Aruguete isn’t buying the empty pockets excuse. She points out the city recently found and fast-tracked subsidies to help Brinshore Development convert the historic Morris B. Sachs store at Milwaukee and Diversey avenues into artist lofts and an art center.

That same Sachs deal also miffed Nancy Aardema, executive director of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, the other NCP partner behind Zapata. Two years ago LSNA thought they had a deal with the city to convert the old clothing store into a supportive living facility for the homeless.

But the newly consolidated Department of Community Development had other ideas. And as with Zapata, according to Aardema, Colon couldn’t or wouldn’t do enough to turn it around.

Then again, the alderman could be excused for being gun-shy on such matters. His support of zoning changes for various ward real estate developments was called into question—many think unfairly—by a 2008 Chicago Tribune series on aldermanic influence peddling.

Whatever the alderman’s motivation, Aardema and LSNA have complained publicly that Colon abandoned them on Sachs and isn’t doing enough on Zapata. The fact that Colon once chaired LSNA’s governing board seems only to make feelings worse.

Proposal Stirs Rancor
All of which lays out a treacherous course for Zapata Apartments. The project did manage to win city zoning approvals in 2009, but only after a rancorous public hearing at which members of the 47-year-old LSNA squared off against the newly created A.N.T, as in Armitage Neighbors Together.

Photo: Gordon Walek

Applicants for Section 8 housing flood into Bickerdike's offices last March.

“We began as a group of residents totally shocked and outraged that our voices were shut out of the community processes,” ANT President Zach Abel recently explained to a reporter from WBEZ radio.

The station produced a good synopsis of the Zapata impasse (http://www.wbez.org/Content.aspx?audioID=40144) but public comments on the program’s Internet site reveal even more about the atmospherics surrounding the project. So do postings on Yahoo!’s Logan Square news group http://groups.yahoo.com/group/LoganSquare/messages/ One entry:

“We are tired and we don't want or need any more low-income housing. I have been involved in my community for years so I can make it safer and better... In the past I received death threats by some of these LOWLIFES
[sic] residents! But, I'm not stopping it all. I'm trying to reach to some elected officials at the Federal level and express my concerns and the others, and let them know what a waste of tax payers taxes this [low income housing] is!”

More problematic than off-the-handle Web posts, of course, was the lawsuit A.N.T. filed in Circuit Court last September challenging the legality of the zoning changes. It argues the city “violates Plaintiffs' constitutional rights” because the up-zoning “serve[s] the wishes of a few individuals, not the City as a whole," and that it “arbitrarily reduced the value of the Plaintiffs' property," and "does not promote the health, safety, or general welfare ... ”

Specifically, the suit argues that the proposed four-story apartment buildings are out of character with that stretch of Armitage; there is insufficient off-street parking; and there is not enough recreational space for children who would live there.

Bickerdike’s Aruguete says she’s confident, as is their zoning consultant, that up-zoning of the two Armitage Avenue sites was legal. She does concede the number of proposed apartments has been lowered from 75 to 72, and again to 66, in order to dispel complaints about density.

Nor does Aruguete accept that the lawsuit need delay city decision-making on the project … perhaps even delay it beyond next year’s mayoral and aldermanic elections. She recalls well the lines of people stretched around the block -- more than 5,000 in all -- who applied for project-based Section 8 slots in buildings owned by Bickerdike a year ago.

“The city gets sued all the time,” said Aruguete, that $16,000-a-month clock seemingly ticking in the background. “They proceed anyway. We need to close this project now!”

Renters Lose in Foreclosure, Too
Both Aruguete and LSNA’s Aardema also dismiss criticism that Zapata’s estimated per-unit construction costs—well above $300,000—are out-of-line now that condos can be had nearby for half that much. Or that there’s less need for subsidized housing now that for-sale prices have fallen.

“Most of the empty condos you see aren’t even for sale,” Aardema said. “The banks that repossessed them are holding them off the market, waiting for prices to go back up.”

Photo: Gordon Walek

Joy Aruguete's, executive director of Bickerdike Redevelopment Corp., speaks with applicants for the nonprofit's Section 8 rental apartments.

And she reminds that the working poor of Logan Square are renters, not buyers -- and that the foreclosure epidemic here is sweeping as many rental units off the market as houses.

So rents continue to rise and more than one-third of Logan Square residents are still paying more than the recommended one-third of their wages in rent. Many evicted or laid off families, she said, are “doubling and tripling up.”

As for per-unit costs, Aruguete defends the price-competitiveness of Humboldt Construction Company, a Bickerdike subsidiary, and their local subcontractors.

“We get three bids for every skilled trade [plumbing, electrical, etc.] and do most of the carpentry ourselves,” she said. She argues that development of good-paying jobs and job skills is as important as developing the housing itself.

Stems From Quality-of-Life Plans
That kind of multi-dividend thinking was behind Zapata from the start, in 2005, when Bickerdike and LSNA led drafting of quality-of-life plans—both subsequently blessed by Mayor Daley—for their respective neighborhoods.

The Logan Square plan (viewable here) specifically calls for “school-to-school housing and retail redevelopment along Armitage Avenue,” especially the rundown stretch from Ames Middle School on the west, past Funston School, to Kedzie Avenue on the east.

Another dividend of Zapata, as planned, is to stem enrollment declines at community-based schools such as Ames and Funston, which have been hard-hit as singles and childless couples displace larger Hispanic families.

Yet the best-laid plans, we are reminded again, can be pulled asunder by shifting economic tides and fears born of uncertainty. Zapata may yet viva, but its ordeal shows how brick-and-mortar community development—hard work in the best of times—keeps getting harder.

For more on the Zapata Apartments, please see www.zapataapartments.org or download this detailed description of the proposed complex.

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