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The Home Front

(Above) Google Street View of improv theater The Second City, part of the Piper’s Alley complex in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood.

Residents of Old Town had enough concerns about one 44-story apartment tower proposed for a vacant parking lot on North LaSalle Street. Now it’s beginning to look like two more towers are planned. Second of two articles on high-rise development in the Old Town neighborhood.

21-May-24 – Fern Hill Company, developer of the proposed 500-unit Old Town Canvas high-rise, apparently is planning to stretch the “land canvas” for at least two additional towers along North Avenue west of Wells Street.

In play in this rezoning chess game is the Piper’s Alley complex, including The Second City, XSport Fitness, Starbucks, and more than a dozen commercial properties that ring the northwest corner of North & Wells, running west to North Park Avenue. Piper’s Alley is within a stone’s throw of the Old Town Triangle landmark district.

A rezoning application obtained by The Home Front calls for more than rezoning of a proposed 44-story apartment tower proposed for a vacant Moody Church parking lot at 1610 North LaSalle Street.

It also includes the Piper’s Alley tract, owned by Old Town Development Associates, LLC, a partnership headed by the politically connected Thomas M. Tully, who served as Cook County Assessor from 1974 through 1978.

The possible rezoning of the 84,078-square-foot Piper’s Alley site to allow a floor area ratio (FAR) of 420,390 square feet could eventually pave the way for two additional high-rise towers on the north side of North Avenue between Wells Street and North Park, zoning experts say. As proposed, Fern Hill’s planned development could result in up to 1,400 new residential units housing upwards of 4,000 to 5,000 new residents.

Although Fern Hill’s rezoning application does not immediately allow residential units on the Piper’s Alley commercial site, that may happen in the future.

The rezoning application also provides that the existing 392 parking spaces in the Piper’s Alley garage could be removed at the time of that parcel’s site plan approval, resulting in a sharp reduction in much needed area parking.

The Piper’s Alley block of buildings was downzoned in the 1970s by petitions from area residents supported by then-aldermen Vi Daley and Michelle Smith. Residents say they do not want Old Town to become like River North or the West Loop with dense high-rise neighborhoods.

Residents and building owners in the coveted Old Town Triangle landmark district are overwhelmingly against a proposed 44-story Old Town Canvas monolith. Now, they say they have another battle to fight in the high-rise war developing in Piper’s Alley.

Fern Hill Company

(Left) Rendering of Old Town Canvas (the darker tower just right of center), a 44-story apartment building proposed for the east side of Old Town. (Click on image to view larger version.)

The charming Old Town Historic District contains 523 magnificently restored Victorian buildings – some are museum quality. Nearly all structures are single-family residences or walk-up apartments built prior to 1950.

The Old Town Triangle, bounded roughly by North Avenue, Wells Street, Lincoln Avenue, Clark Street, and a string of side streets on the west, is home to the annual Old Town Art Fair and its Garden Walk.

Opponents of Fern Hill’s 500-unit project have formed a coalition, citing concerns about its size, public safety, and probable impact on traffic.

Old Town Friends for Responsible Development (OTFRD) argues that the proposed building, with its large number of rental apartment units, is excessive for the neighborhood. The group is advocating for a reduced height of no more than ten stories. The massive multifamily project, they say, would be too large and disruptive. In addition, they are seeking assurances regarding mitigated traffic and disruption to local businesses during construction.

OTFRD is a grassroots coalition comprising more than 1,500 residents of Old Town, Gold Coast, and Lincoln Park, including condominium boards and businesses.

Any Chicagoan who attends the annual Old Town Art Fair during the first week of June would agree the “world’s best art fair” also generates the world’s biggest traffic jam.

Erecting high-rises on the corners of North & LaSalle and on the Piper’s Alley site at North & Wells likely would create non-stop art-fair-like traffic 52 weeks a year, critics say.

(Right) Wider view of Piper’s Alley complex from North & Wells.

Photo provided by Don DeBat

To date, Fern Hill CEO Nick Anderson has dodged questions about the anticipated vehicular traffic that can be reasonably anticipated from the rezoning of the Piper’s Alley parcel, or the proposed 500-unit apartment tower at 1610 North LaSalle Street.

Traffic impact studies beyond the intersections of North & Wells and North & LaSalle have not been provided to the impacted residents.

“Turn-lane traffic on LaSalle and North going west is often backed up a block north to Eugenie – it is a special experience,” complained Alan Lougee, a long-time Old Town Historic District homeowner, with tongue in cheek. “Very often, cars in both the left and center lanes go ‘two-fer’ and turn right into the other westbound lane.”

Lougee also pointed out there is no curb setback for drop offs along North Avenue near the main entry of the proposed tower at 1610 North LaSalle Street.


(Left) Google Street View of the parking lot at 1610 North LaSalle Street that is the proposed site for a 44-story residential tower to which many residents of Old Town are objecting.

“Where do Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and resident friends park?” he asked. “Imagine Amazon, UPS, FedEx, and USPS parking trucks daily on the corner of North & LaSalle. Is Fern Hill keeping track of how many trucks per day? That’s akin to counting how many steps you walk per day.”

With 800 renters and only 150 available resident parking spaces at 1610 North LaSalle Street there will be 650 people coming and going all day, Lougee estimated.

“I’m thankful that I don’t have kids at Latin School for morning and afternoon drop-offs. Friday and Saturday nights should be a spectacular experience on this congested corner,” he said.

Another neighborhood group, Old Town Triangle Association (OTTA), recently released a property owner survey showing that 84 percent of respondents expressed opposition to Fern Hill’s high-rise project density and rezoning application, noted Raymond Clark, president of OTTA.

“The OTTA has sought to preserve the historic and cultural heritage of the Old Town Triangle since the 1940s, which culminated in major rezoning changes in the 1970s, including the formation of the Old Town Triangle Historic District,” said Clark (right). “The few structures that are commercial in use typically do not exceed four stories and sit on lots no larger than residential lots.”

Raymond Clark

Unlike other neighborhoods, the Old Town Triangle does not progress from residential at its core to mixed-use, higher density at its borders, Clark noted. Rather, low-rise structures form a consistent use and density throughout the Triangle, including those homes and apartments immediately adjacent to the north lot lines of Piper’s Alley.

“While we do have a few high-rise residential buildings inside the Triangle boundaries, they are not sited immediately adjacent to the parcels at issue here but are instead peppered along Wells Street, Clark Street, and LaSalle Street north of North Avenue,” said Clark.

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