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How the New TOD Ordinance Could Save a Rejected Jeff Park Development

Rendering of the proposed development.

Last Tuesday, the city's Community Development Commission put the brakes on Mega Realty's plan to build a housing and retail development on two vacant lots located a five-minute walk from the Jefferson Park Transit Center. One of the parcels is city-owned, and the commission voted against a proposal to give the land, valued at $530,000, to the developer free of charge.

The plan for the lots at 5161 and 5201 W. Lawrence Ave. calls for a four-story structure with 39 rental apartments and 11 storefronts. The project would include 62 parking spots: 41 for tenants and 21 for the commercial uses, so the ratio of housing units to residential parking spaces would be slightly higher than the 1:1 ratio required at this location by the city's current zoning code.

It's unclear exactly why the CDC rejected the proposal, which was championed by 45th Ward Alderman John Arena, who said the development would serve as a "grand gateway" for Jefferson Park. Arena has argued that it makes sense for the city to give the land to Mega Realty, because the parcel has sat vacant for 13 years and the development would generate an estimated $175,000 a year in property taxes.

The alderman told DNAinfo he is looking into to the reasons why the commission voted against the land transfer, and investigating ways to salvage the project."Make no mistake, I am not giving up on this initiative, which would help revitalize the downtown Jefferson Park commercial district," he said.

Time is running out before a new ordinance takes effect on October 13, which would require the developer to include on-site affordable housing units, or else pay $500,000 into the city's affordable housing fund -- the current "in lieu" fee is only $400,000. Mega Realty and Arena have said missing this deadline would make the project financially unfeasible.

Map of proposed mixed-use development on Lawrence Ave
The site is less than three blocks from a major transit center and local shopping.

However, City Council may also be approving an expansion of Chicago's 2013 transit-oriented development ordinance, as early as September 24. If this legislation passes, it might be possible for Mega Realty to add affordable units in order to comply with the new housing ordinance, yet still maintain an acceptable profit margin.

The 2013 TOD ordinance halves the parking requirements for residential developments within 600 feet of rapid transit stations, and provides density bonuses for some projects within this zone. On designated Pedestrian Streets, the TOD district is expanded to 1,200 feet.

Last fall, Arena was successful in his effort to have this stretch of Lawrence, and other sections of Lawrence and Milwaukee Avenue in Jefferson Park designated as P-Streets. The alderman deserves credit for this move, since the designation requires that new developments promote a walkable environment, and bans new auto-centric land uses like strip malls and drive-throughs.

Since 5161 and 5201 W. Lawrence Ave. have been fallow for so long, the path of least resistance would have been for Arena to allow a developer build any kind of tax-generating project on the site, even if it was a car-focused land use that degraded the pedestrian environment. Instead, the alderman pushed for walkable development, which is much more appropriate for this transit-friendly location.

Site of a proposed mixed-use development in Jefferson Park
The proposed site is next to Sportif bike shop, and across from the Copernicus Center. Photo: Steven Vance

Unfortunately, the location of the proposed Mega Realty development is about 1,350 feet from the transit center, which means it's just outside the current 1,200-foot limit for TOD on P-Streets. However, last month, Mayor Rahm Emanuel introduced the TOD reform ordinance, which would expand the TOD districts to within 1,320 feet of a station on a regular street and 2,640 feet on a P-Street. It would also provides a density bonus for developers who include on-site affordable housing.

If the new TOD law passes, the Jeff Park development would be well within the expanded TOD zone for P-Streets. In that case, the density bonus would allow them build the soon-to-be-required four affordable units without having to sacrifice any of market-rate apartments. As an added perk, they wouldn't have to build another four parking spots to maintain the 1:1 ratio.

Even if the new TOD ordinance doesn't pass in time, extra housing units could be built at this site if its zoning is changed from its current B3-2 designation to B3-3, which permits more density. Arena's chief of staff Owen Brugh said he's not sure whether adding on-site affordable housing to Mega Realty's plan, either via the new TOD ordinance or a zoning change, would be a practical solution. "We would have to do a lot more investigation to figure out if that's viable," he said. The developer did not respond to a request for comment.

It's possible there would be resistance from neighbors against adding more units -- but not more parking -- to the plan. The Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association has previously opposed measures to allow dense, parking-lite development in the neighborhood, arguing that this would create a parking crunch. However, even if four units are added to the Mega Realty plan without additional spots, the project would still be only two spaces shy of a 1:1 ratio.

Brugh says that creating a project that will work for all of the interested parties is a balancing act. "We have the tolerances of the builder…and the community for what they expect and will accept for the site." Arena is hosting a public meeting about this development on Wednesday, September 16th, at 6:30 p.m. at the Copernicus Center, 5216 W. Lawrence Ave.

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