Proposal for 44-story apartment tower in Old Town draws cheers, jeers at community meeting

A developer’s proposal to plant a massive skyscraper on the edge of Chicago’s historic Old Town neighborhood drew jeers and cheers at a community meeting this week.

The area hasn’t seen a new skyscraper in decades, and Fern Hill Co. wants the City Council to greenlight a 44-story apartment tower on North Avenue between Wells Street and LaSalle Drive next to the nearly century-old Moody Church. The proposed 500-unit building, called Old Town Canvas, would include 100 affordable units.

Neighborhood residents and affordable housing advocates packed the Latin School of Chicago auditorium for the meeting Tuesday evening, hosted by 2nd Ward Ald. Brian Hopkins. Many locals told Fern Hill President Nick Anderson that his plan would choke surrounding streets with traffic and harm Old Town’s small-town feel, while other attendees said Chicago is in dire need of new housing, especially affordable housing.

“This is simply way too big for Old Town and the block,” said Kevin Vaughan, owner of Corcoran’s Grill & Pub at 1615 N. Wells St. He prefers a mid-size building on the site, now occupied by a Walgreens and church parking lot. “That is the type of building we should be talking about.”

But Old Town Canvas would help address the city’s housing crisis, according to Chicago resident Jordan Gold, protecting millennials like him from the skyrocketing cost of living, including rising rents. He also opposes local neighborhood associations, which block housing development.

“They hijack the voice of other Chicagoans,” he said. “Please say yes to this. The city needs more of this.”

Hopkins said he hasn’t decided whether to support Fern Hill, which needs approval from the Chicago Plan Commission and a zoning change from City Council.

Tuesday was the seventh major community meeting about Fern Hill’s plan, but Hopkins wants more community input, and has asked city transportation officials to conduct a comprehensive traffic study for the neighborhood, including how to make it safer to cross nearby Clark Street and increase safety for bike riders.

“We will need to have another meeting when that study is complete,” he said. “This is an ongoing community process.”

Anderson said this corner of the neighborhood, including a pair of gas stations, is severely underutilized. Old Town Canvas will create a new Walgreens, replace a brick wall on North Avenue with other retail, and perhaps entice a grocer to occupy the now-shuttered Treasure Island Foods supermarket at 1639 N. Wells St.

“When you look at surface parking lots, gas stations and blank walls, there is a need for something better,” he said. “There has to be an approach that includes building more housing and increasing the tax base of the city.”

Anderson estimated the proposed tower would generate about $2.5 million in annual property taxes.

All those who spoke out against the proposed tower acknowledged Chicago’s need for more housing but pleaded with Anderson to return to the drawing board and come back with a smaller building.

“We fought urban renewal in the ’60s, and if we hadn’t, we’d be another Sandburg Village,” said Diane Gonzalez, a longtime resident of Old Town, where many homes date back to the 19th century. “Come up with something more palatable, and we’ll be with you.”

Linda Konitz, a resident of the Americana Towers Condominium building at 1636 N. Wells St., said the North Avenue and LaSalle Street intersection is already prone to traffic jams, and Fern Hill’s decision to put its entrance on LaSalle will further clog the streets.

“How many red lights will it take to get through the North and LaSalle intersection if this tower goes forward?” she said.

But it would not be the first tall building in the area, said Chicago resident Butler Adams. Along with the 419-unit Americana Towers, the James Kilmer Condominiums building at 1560 N. Sandburg Terrace, Eugenie Terrace on the Park at 1730 N. Clark St. and 1660 N. LaSalle St. were all completed in the 1970s and 1980s.

“I don’t see why people living in 40-story buildings that are 50 years old are complaining about this project,” Adams said.