A Spruce Goose for Sheridan Road?
Now, understand, I live a block from this site, and I have been whining ever since I got to RP about the lack of a decent array of walkable shops and services – preferably locally owned. I’d love another restaurant and more retail close by – and I’d love it if people from other neighborhoods came and spent their time and their cash here simply because it’s a beautiful and fun place. And I know lots of others feel the same way - but please bear with me here.
For this project, we are being asked to allow Ms. Abel’s team and the Alderman to interpret an ordinance that is near and dear to many in the lakefront wards, the Lakefront Protection Ordinance. Ostensibly part of the reason we are being asked to do this is to help make the dream of better retail and services come true. Of course, invocation of the Lakefront Protection Ordinance instantly caused the ears of battle-scarred old-timers to prick up, but it may have less resonance among those of us who, like myself, are newer to this neighborhood.
If you would care to read the Lakefront Protection Ordinance, you can find it at http://www.municode.com/resources/gateway.asp?pid=13322&sid=13 (scroll down to chapter 16-4). It isn’t long, about 9 pages. In my read through, the most relevant section for this context appeared to be 16-4-030 (194B-3) Purposes, item j. which essentially says that the Chicago Zoning Ordinances will govern, as long as they aren’t in substantial (my emphasis) conflict with the 14 basic policies of the Lakefront Protection Ordinance.
The key basic policies here seemed to me to be number 10 “ensure a harmonious relationship between the lakeshore parks and the community edge, but in no instances will further private development be permitted East of Lakeshore Drive" (which I read as East side of Sheridan road) and number 14 “coordinate all public and private development within the water, park and community zones”. Language like "ensure a harmonious relationship", "coordinate" and "substantial conflict" leaves this ordinance wide open to all kinds of interpretations, but these ambiguities in how the ordinance is crafted were glossed by Ms. Abel's team. Following the logic of their presentation, their stance seems to be that this ordinance only requires a review of the physical impact of the building itself e.g. height, cast shadows, materials. Their argument that there is no "substantial conflict" with the policies of the ordinance was implicit, I guess, because they never mentioned the policies at all. There was some squirming in seats during the meeting over this interpretation of the ordinance, but that was their story, and the presence of Mr. Banks on the team seems to indicate that they intend to stick to it. And therein lies the problem I am having with this whole project as it has been presented so far.
Is the program for the building as presented actually feasible? Does it add economic value to the larger community? Does that value override potential negative impacts? If they believe these things to be so, where is the analysis to support those claims?Now, I understand that according to their interpretation of the requirements of the Lakeshore Protection Ordinance, perhaps they don’t have to give us any of those answers. And I understand that these plans were presented to us as concepts, and that the plan is in process, etc. On the other hand, the program, which is architect-speak for what they actually intend to use the building for, seemed pretty set - or is it?
If past history is any indication, this would be the one and only time that we would get a chance to provide the “community input” that, according to the Alderman, informs whether the project is recommended for variance. So I have to ask myself:
Wouldn’t it have been better to present some real detail on the projected positive socio-economic impact of their program? They are asking for something from this community – shouldn’t we be provided with some realistic notion of what we might be getting in return?In their proposal, the restaurant was one of two major reasons given for the height of the building (the other was the parking). The view from the glass rooftop penthouses was presented as the key concept that would drive the success of the restaurant. My admittedly cursory study of the plan suggested that there was no logical place to put a full restaurant kitchen that would also allow for the much-vaunted views. There were also no projections of the purported views from the restaurant even without a kitchen – it would have been nice to see some mock-ups of them, to give us a better understanding of their value. Upon questioning from the audience, Ms. Abel also said that she had no idea how many heads the restaurant would hold. I believe the city ordinances are pretty clear on this point and you would think that the maximum number of heads would have some impact on the rent she could charge her restaurant tenant, and thus be important to her financial plan...but I digress. There was also no discussion of what was planned for the street level space (Retail? Offices? Storage space? Owner occupied? Tenant occupied?) At this point in the presentation, I was starting to sense a tailwind of frustration blowing through the room. And then it struck me. Either they don’t have a real business plan (which seemed unlikely, given all the talent on display), or they are not telling us the (politically unpopular) real and/or fallback plan. All scenarios that seem pretty unacceptable to me.
As for the much heralded parking…well, suffice to say, the parking seemed to be the most headache free moneymaker for Ms. Abel – but in as much as it was framed as a giveback to the community, I didn’t hear her offering any long-term leases on those spots…I know, she doesn’t have to, but forgive my lack of suspension of disbelief…
Which leads me back to “is what’s in it for us enough to justify the precedent it will set with regard to the Lakefront Protection Ordinance?” I have to say that nothing that was presented answers those questions much. And personally I think that this is the kind of information that we neighbors should get to review before tampering with the LPO.
I will also venture that policy 14 of the Lakeshore Protection Ordinance “coordinate all public and private development within the water, park and community zones” could be interpreted to mean that information on the impact of the actual program of the building is just as important as the impact of the physical structure itself. The potential uses under the proposed zoning are far too broad to give us any real idea what we are getting ourselves into. So, the proposed program (or failure to implement the proposed program) might represent the “substantial conflict” that would trump the primacy of the zoning ordinance.
Perhaps the operating prejudice is just that we neighbors can’t be trusted to make appropriate interpretations of this kind of information - in the absence of a more comprehensive economic development plan to provide needed context, perhaps that prejudice, irrational though it may be, has some persuasive power. But I think we are being asked to take too a great leap of faith for this project, and there are no parachutes for anyone in sight…
-- Rebecca Rouilly