Developer wants apartments on site previously sought by Newman Center
June 6, 2014

By Patrick Butler

Plans for a seven-story, 130-unit rental apartment building on the site of the former Gethsemane Missionary Baptist Church at 1352 S. Union Ave. got a skeptical reception from the community at a May 6 meeting at Powell’s Bookstore, 1218 S. Halsted St.

The University of Illinois at Chicago’s John Paul II Newman Center management had wanted to build a five-story dormitory for 280 students there but could not obtain a zoning change from Alderman James Balcer (11th Ward) that would have allowed the dorm’s construction.

The plan unveiled by Property Markets Group senior managing director Noah Gottlieb calls for razing the now-vacant 145-year-old building, which had been a German high school before the Chicago Fire and later became a Jewish synagogue and finally the Gethsemane Missionary Baptist Church.

The developers are seeking a B3-5 zoning change to allow construction of what Gottlieb described as “very high end” housing with “some retail” on the first floor, a 6,000 square foot terrace, 70 parking spots for cars, and space for 130 bicycles. Gottlieb and architect David Brininstool said the one- to threebedroom units would range from 500 to 1,400 square feet and rent for $1,400, $1,500, and $3,000. The 200 people expected to live in the building “typically” would be university professors, graduate students, doctors, and physicians’ assistants, described by Gottlieb as “people who don’t have a high quality of institutional [university] housing options.

“We think this kind of micromarket is very underserved,” Gottlieb said.

The building would be “professionally managed” rather than governed by a residents’ committee, he added.

Limited parking

Gottlieb said Property Markets Group wants “a redefinition of the normal parking requirement,” generally one space per unit, “because of the demographic makeup here. Our practice is to limit vehicular impact by not having that much parking. If I have a car and want a spot, I’m not going to live in this building. If I want a nice apartment, and I ride my bike to UIC every day, this is the option.”

Gottlieb said he would like to break ground in the fall and that he expects construction on the 25,000-square-foot site to take about ten months.

Noting the building would be right next to the Dan Ryan Expressway, Balcer said, “Noise is going to be a big issue here. And I’ll be glad to work with folks on this.”

He added he would not bargain over parking nor permit less parking than the law requires.

“Whatever the parking for that zone, that’s exactly what it will be,” Balcer said. “Simple as that.”

Several residents including Domingo Miranda, who lives about a block away from the proposed development, expressed dismay that the building would provide rental units rather than condos.

Low-rent worries

“Was there any consideration to going from rental to ownership?” Miranda asked at the meeting. “While I understand your situation, once the concrete is on the floor, it’s easy to lower rents. I’m concerned that the mix of transient residents rather than permanent residents may not be the best for the neighborhood.”

“We’re open to being flexible,” Gottlieb said. “We plan to own this building for a while.” He noted that while the building would not hold condominiums it also would not include affordable housing set-asides.

“We’re contributing instead to the city’s affordability fund, which is another option for developers,” Gottlieb said.

“I’d love for the site to be developed because I don’t think the property in its present state adds value to the neighborhood,” Miranda said. “But my preference would be for it to align more closely to what the neighborhood is, which is residential.

“I wouldn’t say I’m completely opposed to rental,” provided the overall plan makes sense, said Miranda. “But the plan I see here still has gaps. It’s still a work in progress.”

Incorporate old building

Ward Miller, director for Preservation Chicago, said he does not think the developer’s plan “is very sensitive to the site.” He noted the proposed structure is “a very tall building” compared to the surrounding neighborhood, with an elevated garage to boot, but added the situation is not “hopeless.”

“None of us are against development,” Miller continued. “We just want to see a sort of sensitive development. This was one of a handful of public buildings that survived the Chicago Fire.”

He suggested Gottlieb and Brininstool find a way to incorporate the existing structure, the oldest building in the old Maxwell Street area, into the new development. “We realize there are challenges, but sometimes when you work with the challenges you come up with a better product,” Miller added. “I think this is an opportunity to engage the historic building on that site. There could be a good solution. You could have a development and save and restore” the historic building.

Miller suggested incorporating the old church building into the main entrance.

Moving the church

Gottlieb said saving the building at the site would be “impossible,” but when Miller asked if the church building could be moved, Gottlieb said he is “not opposed to the idea, but it’s not as easy as you might think. I’d need to know more.”

Gottlieb said he would be willing to attend another meeting with the community and that he would like to include the neighborhood’s history and evolution as a “design feature” in the new building. “I want people who visit the building to be aware of its history,” Gottlieb said.

“Excuse me, but that’s not historic preservation,” Miller shot back, again urging Gottlieb to find a way to preserve the church building. Asked how long it would take before he decides whether to support Property Markets Group’s requested zoning change, Balcer said he will not be rushed into anything.

The Newman Center’s Rev. Patrick Marshall said, “What surprises me is that one of the issues was the height of the building we proposed, which was five and a half stories. Now they’re coming with plans for a seven-story building “And I’m just amazed they would consider a rental facility that could potentially be a home for unsupervised students, whether they be graduate or undergraduate,” he added. “One of the things that the community was concerned about with our building was how well supervised our students would be — which would be much more supervised than in this building.”

Fr. Marshall said he is glad Balcer is “considering community input on this.”

Asked about the Newman center’s future plans, Fr. Marshall said “We’re still looking at options. We have nothing solidified at this point. But we are looking at some possibilities. We’re not giving up this fight.”

Some residents had criticized Balcer for not making a decision on the Newman Center’s zoning change request in time for the Catholic campus ministry to buy the site, which it had under contract. The alderman explained he was preoccupied with potholes and snow removal during the worst winter in recent memory.

“Nothing has been signed,” Balcer said concerning the developer’s proposal. “Nothing has been done. I have no timetable. It’s about what the people want.”