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Can zoning changes save Avondale’s Milwaukee Avenue and Pilsen’s St. Adalbert church?

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Two aldermen will use “downzoning” as a preservation tool in Avondale and Pilsen

A long rectangular church sanctuary with wooden pews, Renaissance Revival style details and columns.
The sanctuary of  St. Adalbert Parish.

Despite Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s calls to curtail aldermanic power when it comes to unilateral zoning changes, a pair of aldermen have introduced ordinances to preserve businesses along Avondale’s gentrifying Milwaukee Avenue and Pilsen’s threatened St. Adalbert Parish.

If approved, the downzoning measures would limit new buildings to just three stories by moving the zoning down to a lower classification.

In Chicago’s 35th Ward, Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa recently revised and narrowed the scope of his 2017 proposal to “blanket downzone” 99 parcels on Milwaukee Avenue between Kedzie and Central Park. The plan now focuses on just 14 specific properties.

“During my previous term, the three community organizations that represent residents and business owners along Milwaukee Avenue wrote to my office and asked for the zoning to align with the land use and density of the surrounding area,” Alderman Ramirez-Rosa tells Curbed Chicago.

“But we also heard from some residents who thought the blanket downzone was too expansive, too blunt of a tool. So we looked at all 99 properties and identified 14 buildings where the zoning aligned with the existing use but not the density.”

Under the legislation, the permitted commercial uses will remain the same. Height and density would be reduced to a B2-1 designation to limit future development to a maximum of three stories.

A graphic showing street-level images of two and three-story buildings at 2620-2634 N. Milwaukee, 2643-2651 N. Milwaukee, 2816 N. Milwaukee, 2832-2834 N. Milwaukee, 2854 N. Milwaukee, 2875 N. Milwaukee, 3334 W. Diversey, and 3350 Diversey avenues.
A list of properties affected by the legislation.
35th Ward

The latest plan covers the properties located at 2620-2634 N. Milwaukee, 2643-2651 N. Milwaukee, 2816 N. Milwaukee, 2832-2834 N. Milwaukee, 2854 N. Milwaukee, 2875 N. Milwaukee, 3334 W. Diversey, and 3350 Diversey avenues.

The change doesn’t necessarily rule out large projects in the future, but it would force developers to the table and go through the alderman’s zoning process where things like things such as affordable housing can be negotiating.

“The community-driven zoning process is open to anyone seeking a change,” Ramirez-Rosa says. “But that’s not really the purpose of the downzone. It is to align the zoning with what residents feel is the appropriate use and density.”

Ramirez-Rosa hopes the downzone will not only preserve Milwaukee Avenue’s built environment, but also affordability for area residents.

“We’ve found that denser zoning can exacerbate inequality and lead to a more luxury market,” the alderman explains. “It might seem counterintuitive from a purely supply and demand standpoint, but research shows that looser zoning leads to a loss of affordability.”

A 35th Ward poll from a recent meeting to discuss the Milwaukee downzone plan found that 80 percent of the 150 residents in attendance were in support of the proposal.

Meanwhile, on Chicago’s Lower West Side, 25th Ward Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez introduced similar downzoning legislation to protect Pilsen’s St. Adalbert Parish from potential redevelopment.

Earlier this month, the Archdiocese of Chicago closed the historic Renaissance Revival church designed by notable architect Henry J. Schlacks in 1912. The Archdiocese is planning on selling the structure to a private entity.

Sigcho-Lopez’s proposal would rezone 1650 W. 17th Street from a level which could support a multi-unit development to a restrictive, low-density “cemetery” designation. Supporters of the plan hope the pending zoning change will compel the Archdiocese to explore options to preserve and repurpose the structure.

The move “sends a message to the Archdiocese that they can’t simply shut their doors, turn a profit, and permanently alter the core of a community without transparency and input,” said the alderman, according to a Sun-Times report.