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Old Town Residents Fight Proposed 44-Story Tower

If you were born in Milwaukee or Cincinnati and are not familiar with this architectural treasure-trove neighborhood, listen up. The charming Old Town Historic District contains 523 magnificently restored Victorian buildings. Some are museum quality.

The Old Town Triangle (left), bounded roughly by North Avenue, Wells Street, Lincoln Avenue, Clark Street, and a string of side streets on the west, is home to the annual Old Town Art Fair.


Opponents of a 500-unit project dubbed “Old Town Canvas,” at 1610 North LaSalle Avenue, on the eastern edge of the neighborhood, have formed a coalition, citing concerns about size, public safety, and probable impact on traffic.

Developer Nick Anderson’s recently updated plan for the project calls for adding eight floors – 85 feet in extra height – to the proposed tower in exchange for a greater upper-floor setback over a planned Walgreens pharmacy store.

(Right) Rendering obtained from Fern Hill Company of the proposed Walgreens at street level of Old Town Canvas.

Anderson, founder and president of Chicago-based Fern Hill Company, says the additional height on the proposed building at the northeast corner of North Avenue & Wells Street is designed to free up neighboring high-rise views by reducing the tower’s width by 15 percent to 164 feet. The tower would have 450 parking spaces – but only 150 spaces reserved for the tower’s 500 apartment units.

Old Town Friends for Responsible Development (OTFRD) argues that the proposed building, with its large number of rental apartment units, is excessive for the neighborhood. The group is advocating for a reduced height of no more than ten stories.

The opposition says the massive multifamily project would be too large and disruptive. In addition, they are seeking assurances regarding mitigated traffic and disruption to local businesses during construction.

(Left) Sign spotted in Old Town expressing opposition to the apartment tower.

OTFRD is a grassroots coalition comprised of more than 1,500 residents of Old Town, Gold Coast, and Lincoln Park, including condominium boards and businesses, according to Jordan Matyas, an Old Town resident, attorney, lobbyist, and member of Old Town Triangle Association.

The project also will include the rezoning of the Piper’s Alley complex, The Moody Church, and neighboring gas stations. Those properties allegedly would not be allowed to have residential units. However, there is no prohibition on Fern Hill or any other developer changing the later phases of the planned development in the future.

Matyas said OTFRD supports responsible development. However, as currently proposed, Fern Hill’s plans, he says, will overwhelm the community, cause traffic nightmares, and forever change the charm and character of Old Town.

Survey shows Old Town property owners generally opposed to tower proposal

On April 23, Old Town Triangle Association (OTTA) released a property owner survey in which 84 percent of respondents expressed opposition to the project’s density and rezoning application for the high-rise, according to OTTA president Raymond Clark.

The OTTA survey listed the following reasons for the thumbs-down vote on the Old Town Canvas proposal: Scale and density of the planned development and/or height of the tower, design and/or aesthetics of the tower, incompatibility with the neighborhood, lack of justification for zoning change, traffic congestion, parking, safety, and general opposition.

The proposed tower would be built less than 1.5 blocks from Latin School of Chicago, with nearly 1,200 children potentially affected in terms of safe ingress and egress. Fern Hill has not provided a certified traffic impact study.

According to Clark, the survey reflects the input of professional architects on the OTTA board of directors and its Historic District/Planning & Zoning Committee, including one architect, he says, with direct experience in high-rise development.

“It is the unique architectural characteristic of our neighborhood, resulting in small lots of low density, that we believe drives many OTTA members’ strong opposition to the proposal,” said Clark (right).

He says the survey results, along with 37 pages of Old Town zoning and development data, were sent to 2nd Ward Alderman Brian Hopkins and all relevant city departments but there was no response.

Launched in 1948, the respected neighborhood organization fought in 1977 for Old Town to be designated a Chicago Landmark District, and in 1984, Old Town was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“We don’t want Old Town to become Sandburg Village,” said Diane Gonzalas (left), a preservationist and architectural historian who was involved with the landmarking of Old Town Triangle. “I can’t imagine a mammoth high-rise casting a shadow over these historic landmark properties. This development will take away from the character and beauty of Old Town.”

Residents of Old Town and neighboring communities have been against Old Town Canvas ever since it was unveiled last September, according to Matyas.

“The developer’s lack of transparency and refusal to respond to OTFRD’s numerous requests for details and documents continues to undermine the community’s ability to review and analyze this proposal,” said Matyas.

OTFRD member Cathy Roesch says developer Nick Anderson is not being truthful with the group.

“We are being gaslighted,” she said. “We seek transparency. We don’t want to be psychologically manipulated or misled.”

Any revised plans, says OTFRD, must address the following concerns:

⦁ The density of the building and the proposed traffic plan must ensure that there is either no change in traffic or an improvement in traffic flow.

⦁ Construction of 500 units is unacceptable. The massive tower does not belong in the middle of Old Town. The developer needs to work with – and not against – the community to develop a transparent process that will support his business needs while not harming the community.

⦁ The building’s height should be consistent with similar new construction in Old Town and no more than 8 to 10 stories tall.

⦁ The developer should work with businesses on a plan to ensure minimal disruption to restaurants and stores during construction.

⦁ The plans must include additional details on the gas stations – including an environmental site assessment for removal of underground fuel storage tanks, as well as restrictions on the use of the land – and a time limit for removing them.

Dan Baldwin, board member and former president of OTTA, labeled the Old Town Canvas development plan “a Trojan horse.”

“The real plans for Old Town Canvas, which calls for up to 1,400 units along North Avenue, were fitted inside the first presentation plan, like a Trojan horse,” Baldwin surmised. “If a developer wants to build a 20-story high-rise, he asks for 40 stories, so 20 stories look like a giant concession. Reducing the final size of the project is a big victory by the alderman, while in reality, a ten-story building is more suitable to the neighborhood.”

Alderman Hopkins, who represents a portion of Old Town, must balance the ongoing need for development with the vast concerns of neighbors, believes Matyas.

“The community is relying on the alderman to take the developer’s massive tower, which includes enormous density, and tone it down to a development that will become part of Old Town and not an eyesore and ongoing problem for the residents,” said Matyas (right).

Don DeBat is co-author of “Escaping Condo Jail,” the ultimate survival guide for condominium living. Visit


“The book is Escaping Condo Jail by Sara Benson and Don DeBat. I would say that anybody thinking about buying a condo, or even anybody serving on a condo board, or anybody who has any connection to a condo, this is must reading—all 600 and something pages. Thanks a lot for a great book!”


Steve Sanders, “Your Money Matters” WGN TV, December 22, 2014

By Don DeBat

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