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A New Hope in the Land of the NIMBY? Introducing Jefferson Park Forward

Jefferson Park Forward want more development near the local transit center. Photo: Andrea Bauer, Chicago Reader

[The Chicago Reader recently launched a new weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. This partnership will allow Streetsblog to extend the reach of our livable streets advocacy. We’ll be syndicating a portion of the column on the day it comes out online; you can read the remainder on the Reader’s website or in print. The paper hits the streets on Thursdays.]

There's a culture war going on in Jefferson Park, a middle-class community in Chicago's northwest side bungalow belt that's home to many city and county workers. Some longtime residents want the neighborhood to remain an enclave of low-slung houses and two-flats, where driving and parking are prioritized. Others, many of them newer arrivals, want to see the community become more urban, with more apartments near the Jefferson Park Transit Center, and better conditions for walking and biking.

"I choose to live here because I like the way it is," wrote Carlene Blumenthal, a board member of the conservative Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association. "I am a proud NIMBY."

Indeed, in recent years, the neighborhood association has spearheaded "Not In My Back Yard"-type opposition to several proposed multiunit buildings and sustainable transportation improvements.

"This is a semi-suburban area," recently-elected board president Bob Bank told me. "We'd like nothing [taller] than what's the current zoning in downtown Jefferson Park, mostly four stories or less." The 56-year-old AT&T employee and his wife have lived and raised their three now-adult children in Jefferson Park since 1983.

On the progressive side of this battle are people like 34-year-old transportation planner Ryan Richter. Richter grew up in Jefferson Park and moved back in 2009 after buying a house, where he lives with his wife and two young daughters. He joined the neighborhood association in January, then ran against Bank in September to be its new board president. (He didn't win.)

Ryan Richter. Photo: Andrea Bauer, Chicago Reader

"The JPNA doesn't see how important density is for taking advantage of our rich transit resources," Richter argues. The transit center, located just northwest of the Lawrence/Milwaukee commercial district, is served by the Blue Line, Metra, and 12 bus routes. The neighborhood association has fought several plans for development near the station.

"There's no vision there," Richter griped. "They're against everything, but they're not for anything."

The neighborhood association has also been a constant irritant to 45th Ward alderman John Arena, who is himself a thorn in Mayor Emanuel's side as a leader of City Council's Progressive Caucus.

Like Richter, Arena has argued that transit-friendly housing and walkable, bikeable streets are crucial for revitalizing a neighborhood blighted by vacant lots and empty storefronts. "We are blessed with tremendous access to public transit," 45th Ward chief of staff Owen Brugh told DNAinfo's Heather Cherone last year. "We should play to our strengths."

This ideological clash came to a head during the September board election. Bank, who had previously made unsuccessful bids for alderman and committeeman, says he ran for president at the behest of board members who feared the organization was being taken over by urbanists like Richter. Bank won by a vote of 60 to 27.

Richter has since launched a new group called Jefferson Park Forward. "A lot of people were disgusted with the JPNA and wanted an outlet for positive change," he said. "Many of them are relatively new to the community and somewhat younger, and they want more bike facilities, walkable urban spaces, and independent businesses."

Read the rest of the story on the Chicago Reader website.

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