A Mistake By the Lake? Developer Wants a 250-Car Garage in Rogers Park

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Rendering of the proposed garage courtesy of Tawani Enterprises.

[This piece also appears in Checkerboard City, John’s weekly transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]

Colonel J.N. Pritzker, one of Chicago’s wealthiest, most influential residents, is a historic preservationist and a bicycle advocate. As an heir to the Pritzker family fortune and longtime Rogers Park resident, the billionaire has used his money in creative ways to help revitalize the community.

In 2004 his investment firm Tawani Enterprises began buying residential properties in the neighborhood, renovating and leasing them. Some of the company’s holdings include the Mayne Stage theater, Act One gastropub, Cat’s Cradle bed and breakfast and the Emil Bach House, 7415 North Sheridan, a Prairie-style home by Frank Lloyd Wright, currently undergoing a faithful restoration. As an avid cyclist, he bankrolled the latest edition of Active Transportation Alliance’s Chicagoland Bicycle Map, and he occasionally pedals in Critical Mass, the anti-car bike parade.

So I’m puzzled why Pritzker’s company wants to tear down an attractive, historic house, a stone’s throw from the beach in Rogers Park, and replace it with a parking structure for 250 automobiles. The garage would largely serve Bach House visitors and residents at Farcroft by the Lake, a twelve-story tower at 1337 West Fargo, built in 1928, which Tawani is currently renovating into eighty-four upscale rental units. Both buildings are located only a few minutes walk from the CTA Red Line’s Jarvis Station. Eighty-four spaces would be set aside for short- and long-term paid parking for the general public.

The firm would build the 181-foot-long, four-story garage on three parcels of land at the southeast corner of Sheridan and Sherwin. The land is currently occupied by a small surface parking lot, a vacant lot where vendors sell pumpkins and Christmas trees in season, and a handsome, ninety-year-old house built of cream-colored brick. The two-story home currently houses the Shambhala Meditation Center, which is moving to the West Loop, and it sits on a pretty little yard with several tall trees, a rare patch of green along highway-like Sheridan.

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The Shambala Center. Photo by Kelly Loris.

In fairness, the garage would be about as attractive as any building can be whose sole function is to warehouse cars. Although it wouldn’t include retail space, the red-brick structure would be wrapped in green recycled channel glass panels, alternating between matte and reflective finishes to create an interesting texture. After the 49th Ward zoning committee complained about the elimination of green space, Tawani altered the design to include about 2,400 square feet of grass and planters at ground level plus additional planters along the edge of the roof parking deck.

I didn’t hear back from Pritzker by press time but Tawani chief of staff Mary Parthe fielded my questions about why they think it makes sense to demolish a historic home and build space for hundreds of cars in a dense area well served by transit. “The Shambhala house is a beautiful structure but there’s been a lot of deferred maintenance, and I’m not sure we could find another use for it,” she said. “We already have a B&B. Our parking study showed there’s a parking shortage in Rogers Park, so [the garage] will be beneficial to the entire community.”

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Tim Doran, far left, Mary Parthe and other Tawani representatives at a recent community input meeting about the garage proposal.

Since the Farcroft formerly had no off-street parking and is located steps from the CTA, won’t the new garage encourage its residents and other Rogers Parkers to choose driving over transit, creating more congestion and worsening conditions for walking and biking? “We don’t think we’re going to be increasing the use of cars versus the CTA,” Parthe responded. “If people are using public transportation in Rogers Park, usually they don’t own a car, and I don’t believe we’re encouraging them to buy one. We would love to go completely green but the reality is people still drive cars and with the Farcroft we know these people will have cars.”

Building the garage would require a zoning change and, because the lots fall within the Lakefront Protection District, review under the Lakefront Protection Ordinance and approval by the Chicago Plan Commission. 49th Ward Alderman Joe Moore has been seeking community input on whether to give his blessing; he will probably make his decision later this winter.

Recently more than a hundred residents showed up for a raucous, three-hour public forum on the project at a senior center near the Shambhala house. “This is the next step in the process of helping me to determine whether to support the proposal, to oppose it or support it with modifications,” Moore said in his intro. “So, no, I have not decided one way or the other. That is the purpose of this meeting tonight.”

Representatives from Tawani gave a presentation on the garage’s features, touting its environmentally friendly building materials and possible inclusion of parking spaces for I-GO or Zipcar vehicles, charging stations for electric cars, and bike racks. Traffic consultant Tim Doran said their study shows that the facility will have minimal impact on neighborhood traffic. “We didn’t just make these numbers up,” he said. “Remember, a lot of this traffic is already circulating in your neighborhood looking for other parking places.”

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A community member speaks up in favor of adding street-level retail space to the garage design.

When the floor was opened to comments, a few attendees voiced support for the structure. In one of Chicago’s most ethnically and economically diverse communities, where poverty and homelessness are major issues, several people stated that parking is “the biggest problem in the neighborhood.”

But judging from applause levels, about three-quarters of the crowd opposed the plan. “It’s just too big guys,” one man said to the developers. “I’ve lived on Sherwin for eighteen years and now I’m going to have to walk my kids past all those cars. It’s going to inject a ton of traffic onto our streets.”

“Does this neighborhood have a parking problem?” asked a woman. “It could. Is it the worst problem in our community? I don’t think so. You know, there’s a song about paving paradise to put in a parking lot. And so you’re taking the last remaining place where there’s open space and a yard and a pumpkin patch and paving that over from lot line to lot line.” She argued Chicago is still negatively impacted by the auto-centric planning policies of the Urban Renewal era. “Why don’t we use what we’ve learned and not do that again?”

  • C L

    I live in Rogers Park, and parking is a big problem there (no, it’s not a bigger problem than human suffering, but no transportation issue meets that standard). There is no parking on my street after 5 p.m., and when I get home very late, it’s a nightmare.  I have to circle forever to find anything, and it’s usually blocks and blocks away from my apartment.  So, I don’t think the additional parking is going to change anyone’s mind about whether to have a car at all — anyone who owns a car in Rogers Park already has to put up with a great deal of inconvenience, and 250 spots isn’t going to change the situation all that much.

    This garage is a bit bigger than I would like, so I’d be in favor of a smaller version over this plan.  It’s so wide that it’s going to make that block less walkable.  I think parking garages should be built up, with more stories, so that they’re not taking up so much of a street.  But, it’s hard to say no to more parking in Rogers Park when it’s so scarce.

  • Mark

    They need to fix the problem where half the cars in dense neighborhoods aren’t even registered here.  Before they do that, all of this is moot.

  • As a dense, walkable neighborhood with good bus service, four Red Line stations and a Metra stop, obviously Rogers Park is a place where it’s relatively easy to live without a car.

    The developers said several times that their decisions not to have a smaller footprint, retail or a green roof were influenced by feedback from neighborhoods who didn’t want a taller structure.

  • To me this seems to be a project driven by unpleasant business realities. Upscale rental units like the Farcroft project are a tough sell without parking. Tawani is going after a project outside of their usual sustainable and preservation driven developments to support two high profile projects. While I’m not a fan of a parking garage going up, I’d hate to see the Farcroft project flop because it can’t offer the amenities people renting upscale apartments expect.

    While they’ve shown much more interest in historic preservation and sustainability than most developers, Tawani is still a development company looking to make money. If a few less desirable elements allow a project like the Farcroft to succeed and convince more developers to follow Tawani’s model, that’s in the long run a good thing.

  • I’m not convinced the Farcroft needs a parking garage to succeed. After all, it has existed as a residential property for decades with no off-street parking, and it’s only a seven-minute walk from the Jarvis stop. According to Mary Parthe the apartment will be “premium” but not “luxury” units. Perhaps they’d have to lower the rents a tad, but they should be able to find 84 renters who would be happy to live without off-street parking since they’d be just steps from the train, the bus and the beach.

  • C L

    If height is a problem, it sounds like it would be better to just make it smaller period — less wide, but with the same height, maybe holding about 100 cars.  I suppose that isn’t as profitable, but it would be nice if the alderman encouraged them to make it smaller.

    I agree that you can get by in Rogers Park without a car — I’ve done it — but people already know their options.  If they have a car, it’s because it’s worth it to them for various reasons.  For me, it saves tons of time compared to public transit, and I use it to visit my family.  If they want people to give up their cars, public transit needs to be an attractive alternative — in my neighborhood, the train is great if you’re going somewhere on the red line, but getting other places from Rogers Park can take a very long time because of transferring.  I don’t think our streets are crammed with cars because people just don’t realize life would be great without it — right now it’s still much, much better than public transit for a lot of people.

  • I do think part of the reason our streets are crammed with cars is because many folks aren’t aware of all the transportation option out there, as well as the economic, health and, yes, time-saving benefits of living car-free or using your car less often, which is why more outreach is needed. Some cities have programs where people who are interested in driving less can work with a “coach” to learn alternative ways to get around. Chicago may be doing this soon.

    Sure, it may be more convenient to use a car for some trips, like carrying cargo, or visiting relatives in the suburbs. But if we don’t make parking easier by building hundreds of new spaces, more Rogers Parkers, like the ones moving into the Farcroft, will avoid car ownership and use car sharing for these trips instead. And those who already own cars will only use them when they really need to, and not when other options like transit are available, because they won’t have a parking spot waiting for them at a garage.

  • Mcass777

    Two thoughts…

    First, I agree with the notion that if you have a car, you can afford it, need it, and use it. You are not going to convience someone who is in sales to public transportation to a new business meeting in Naperville at 8am followed by a staff meeting in Elk Grove Village at 11.

    Second, why not go undergound with the plan? Let the top floor or 2 be retail, maybe put a green roof on it. Better yet, forget retail, keep the underground concept but put the top floor at ground level and make it a park. Every one wins!

  • Joseph Musco

    This is a great topic for future discussion. The out-of-state plates on my street is consistently numbers around 20%. Chicago has a lot of residents who somehow drive cars that live out of state. It robs the city of already scare resources. Enforcement should be a win-win for the city and nudge at least some drivers towards transit.

  • Dqfamily

    I live right next door and I’m not opposed to a parking structure but am very opposed to any retail! Geez we have enough retail. We don’t wanna get all track mall looking. Thankfully, we don’t have a lot of that around here.

  • C L

    I think the main thing that would reduce car ownership in Rogers Park is quality public transportation to the west and southern parts of the city, and to the northern suburbs.  It’s easy to get around the North Side and downtown on public transit — but we’re so far north that getting to many parts of the city takes hours on public transit, especially since there is no circle line. On Google Maps, I regularly see that my trips to some neighborhoods will take either 1.5 hours on public transit or 30 minutes by car. Many people commute north as well, and you can’t leave Chicago without transferring (plus, the transit in Evanston and Skokie isn’t as good), which is another reason many people find that their commute takes a fraction of the time by car.

    Of course, for a lot of people it doesn’t make tons of sense to live in Rogers Park, if their commute is inconvenient without a car — but that’s what happens when rent is significantly cheaper in some neighborhoods than others. I think some of the sorting that will happen as we move to a less car-dependent society is that people will have to rent smaller, pricier apartments in locations that are either near work, or right next to the train line that takes them there.  Getting rid of a car will offset this cost somewhat, but not completely.

  • John

    That’s a pretty ugly garage.  I like the one on the east side of Sheridan by Loyola.  

  • BlueFairlane

    My guess is that it would be very hard to build anything substantial underground in this location, as you’d have difficulty keeping it from flooding. The water table here is already very high, and drainage during heavy rains is a big concern. I would not park my car in an underground garage east of the lake ridge this close to the lake.

  • If the garage is inevitable (which it isn’t) putting it underground and capping it with a park would be a cool idea. That’s basically what Millennium Park is, a park on top of a garage.

  •  No reason it couldn’t be attractive retail, and it wouldn’t look like a strip mall because it would be next to the sidewalk. Retail along the sidewalk, rather than a long, blank wall, makes for a more pleasant pedestrian experience.

  • Lindsay Bayley

    As someone who lives and breathes parking studies all day long, I promise that building more parking will not solve the “parking problem.” As long as on-street parking is underpriced and free, it will be in high demand. 

    I know a handful of people who have cars and really don’t use them. They drive the car *sometimes* and would get rid of it if parking were more of a hassle or more expensive. They have expressed that they “should really sell it…” and don’t. There are others who need their car for work, but not all of them. These people would be perfect candidates for I-Go or ZipCar, but they have already made the investment in their car…and change is hard.

    I agree with CL that the transit could and should be much better. I wish more developers would invest their money in improving transit in the neighborhood, like how Apple helped renovate the red line station near their store. 

    And finally, we can keep building parking for these neighborhoods, but I don’t think the streets don’t have the capacity to handle the traffic. It’ll be a traffic nightmare.

  • In Rogers Park, quite a few of those out of state plates are college students – Loyola, Northwestern and others. I lived on a Rogers Park street of mostly apartment buildings for 10 years, and the population on that street was fairly transient. Many people didn’t stay longer than a year or two.

    Enforcement to compel Illinois registration would probably be more fruitful in neighborhoods where the college student population is smaller. I’ve known some people who moved here from out of state, bought real estate, had kids and established a long-term Chicago presence while keeping out of state plates registered to their parents’ addresses. Those are the ones who should be the target of such an effort.

  • Fifteen years ago, it was a bit more challenging to live car free in Rogers Park than it is now. I-Go and Zipcar didn’t exist, and car rental availability for occasional trips wasn’t convenient. CTA service was slightly better (before a few rounds of service cuts), but many people did fine living without cars. I-Go now has more than a dozen cars within a 1 mile walk from the Farcroft.

    While I understand the need for some additional parking, the size of the proposed garage could significantly boost the number of residents in that area who choose to own cars. Rogers Park really can’t accommodate a significant increase in car traffic. Incentives to promote non-car trips would be much more beneficial to the neighborhood. Having more car sharing would make much more sense than more free market parking.

  • The Farcroft was allowed to deteriorate for years as a moderately priced apartment building with an owner who did not invest in proper maintenance. A number of friends have lived there at various times in the last 20 years, and I’ve seen and heard plenty about conditions there (problems with elevators, windows, facade, water pressure and other issues).

    When I heard that Tawani bought the Farcroft and was fixing it up, I was happy to hear that this beautiful building would be revived instead of decaying further. Decreasing the number of units may help reduce the parking demand.

    A smaller amount of new off-street parking with a new I-Go location would make more sense for the neighborhood than the proposed 100 car garage.

  • aw

    Ok, we need parking, but why this spot, one of the few (other than the park) open spaces left on the lake front? The argument should be about the location. Arguing about the need for parking is where they want us to be. Open space is so rarely created that losing any should be fought tooth and nail. There are other places (existing surface lots for example) that could be built up, although, again, not on the lakefront.

  • On Saturday, February 23rd we had a fire at 1200 Sherwin, the building at the end of the block where the parking garage is being proposed. Five firetrucks parked on our block and the street was closed by the police. Nobody was able to enter or exit the dead end street. How is it possible that the Pritzkers are going to make our street more congested and more dangerous in case or another fire? It is a dangerous proposal. To the extent we need a parking garage in our community, why don’t you build it at a street where there is ample access and NOT at a street where there is one sole access?

  • m.

    The disconnect between the city’s stated goal to be a model of sustainability and buildings that clearly favor private car use is getting flat-out confusing. In Uptown there’s a proposal working its way through the local zoning & development advisory process that had somewhere between 600 and 700 parking spaces at last count (it’s a moving target). Cars will enter/exit along with all service and supermarket/fitness club traffic onto residential Clarendon Ave across from Clarendon Park. Clarendon is the local refuge from crazy traffic heading for Lake Shore Drive for so many bicyclists, pedestrians, and schoolkids. Montrose there is already a nightmare of car exhaust in the summer because of lakefront underpass. And the development’s just east of the Broadway-Sheridan-Montrose intersection described as the north side’s most dangerous in the local ward master plan.

    Why spend $32 in TIF (latest version) to add so many spaces for private cars within walking distance of many bus routes, the Lakefront Trail, & the $203 million Wilson Ave CTA station reconstruction described by CTA as the largest in their history? The rationale just escapes me, especially in a ward where 40% of residents don’t own cars & so many are committed to bike/pedestrian infrastructure.

  • Thanks for the heads-up on this!

  • julia picinni

    Pritzker contributed to Gordon, who opposed Moore in the 2007 election. Now Col Pritzker is a contributor to Alderman Moore.

  • You can purchase a city sticker with out of state plates.

  • JSMIII

    I have to agree with CL. I lived in Edgewater in the early 90’s and needed a car to get to my National Guard drills and meetings in Waukegan. Plus it is a pain to carry a rucksack and duffle on the CTA. If you live in Rogers Park and work in the loop you certainly can live without a car, but if you work in the burbs, the reverse commute is horrific– I know from 10 years of it, on public transit.
    A lot of gas is burned and congestion caused by people circling the neighborhood looking for a space on the street. More off street spots will help cut that down. Also, if you ever want friends from out of the neighborhood to visit you, more parking is needed as the in-laws are not piling onto the CTA to visit you for Xmas dinner.

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