Another developer, another apartment building— while UIC Newman Center still seeks dormitory
June 6, 2014

What a terrible turn events have taken concerning the property at 1352 S. Union St.

The University of Illinois at Chicago John Paul II Newman Center had a contract to build a dormitory for students there. When neighbors complained that the dorm would be too tall, that they didn’t like where the entrance would be, and that they were worried about security, the Rev. Patrick Marshall and his Newman team met every community complaint, changing plans to make the building smaller, moving the entrance, and adding security features.

When Alderman James Balcer wanted even more community input, the Newman Center team conducted community surveys that found the changes met the community’s needs; surveys also showed people who once had opposed the dorm had become supporters of it. Vocal dorm opponents made strange arguments, including that the dorm would “block the sun,” but the most vocal of them actually have moved out of the neighborhood, alleviating the need to placate them.

All Balcer had to do was approve a zoning change, and UIC — the university with the largest Roman Catholic population in Chicago — would have had a dormitory for students who would be living there on condition they abide by a code of conduct. An asset to any community, such students would have made good neighbors for local residents and businesses.

Instead, Balcer inexplicably dragged his feet for so long, citing preoccupation with potholes and snow removal (funny how other aldermen managed to conduct ward business when faced with the same issues), that the Newman Center lost its contract for the property.

Nature abhors a vacuum, so developer Property Markets Group (PMG) immediately stepped in with its own plans. PMG plans call for a seven-story building. The Newman Center’s plans called for a five-story building. PMG plans call for 130 rental units and no condominiums, assuring a transient population of residents who can do as they please. Newman Center plans called for housing for 280 students, a stable population guaranteed to stay until they earned their degrees, with strict rules for behavior.

Newman Center plans did not require any parking because residents would be students. PMG plans call for a waiver from parking space regulations that, if granted, would mean insufficient parking for building residents from the start and would increase the number of drivers competing for street parking.

Newman Center plans called for basically whatever the neighbors demanded in terms of height, security, and entrances. PMG, if allowed to build, may take neighbors’ demands into consideration. Or maybe not.

This is progress?

Most ironic of all, PMG needs a zoning change just like the Newman Center did. Balcer wouldn’t give it to the Newman Center. Let’s see what he does when a powerful developer is making the same demand.

Some of PMG’s views already raise red flags. A PMG spokesman said he expects residents will be university professors, graduate students, and medical personnel, citing a lack of available housing in the community.

We don’t see that lack, observing scores of for rent signs throughout the neighborhood every summer. And, of course, there is no way PMG can guarantee who will live there. There are laws to prevent discrimination.

We also find it disturbing that PMG wants a waiver from parking space requirements. That’s not exactly being a good neighbor when parking is such an issue in the community.

Historic preservationists want to retain the old Gethsemane Missionary Baptist Church building on the site, hoping for a few crumbs such as maybe incorporating part of the old building into the new, or moving the church. The developer, however, at the May 6 community meeting appeared to dismiss such ideas. Concerning this property, Balcer simply has done a bad job. He listened more to neighbors bizarrely fixated on keeping the dorm from being built, despite evidence that most residents welcomed it, than to more rational neighbors and local businesses. Even after those neighbors moved away, Balcer still refused to grant the zoning change the Newman Center needed, and the dorm was lost.

The result may be a building that will fulfill all of the University Village residents’ worst nightmares — large size, parking problems, and transient tenants.

The University of Illinois at Chicago Newman Center needs a dormitory. We call on Balcer, or any other alderman willing to do the right thing, to find a piece of property close to the university for it, and to work with the Newman Center instead of against it.

Wherever the dorm ends up, it will unquestioningly be an asset. The same cannot be said for yet another apartment building.