East Village landmark spat may soon end

A bruising two-year battle over development in the East Village neighborhood will end next week if the City Council approves a historic preservation law.

The law would require that facades on many buildings in the East Village be preserved, hampering the tear-down condo developments that have become popular in the neighborhood.

The proposed ordinance covers selected buildings that lie within an area bounded by Damen, Ashland, Division and Augusta Boulevard.

“The neighborhood is really distinctive in a way that’s not often recognized,” said Marjorie Isaacson, who pushed for landmark designation. “It has unusual and distinctive buildings that show how the people who built Chicago lived. It was pretty intact when I moved in 25 years ago. But we’ve started seeing a lot of those buildings being demolished.”

But many in the neighborhood questioned whether the ordinance was necessary, or fair to property owners.

“It’s my property and nobody even asked me how I felt about it,” said Carol Mrowka, a real estate agent who lives in the district and sits on the board of the Association of Westtown Property Owners, which opposed landmarking. “I think it’s disgraceful.”

Mrowka fears that the ordinance will slow growth of property values and force owners to pay higher prices to fix up their homes.

The Commission on Chicago Landmarks polled owners affected by the landmark designation and found that 56 percent approved of the proposal. Some in the large minority argued vocally against the project, and things got heated.

The issue split the East Village Association into warring factions, and led to a blizzard of window signs and to cussing spats on previously quiet blocks.

“It’s been a terrible issue. People have been verbally accosted,” said Mrowka.

All that is likely to end if the City Council’s landmarks committee approves the measure at its Jan. 11 meeting. Committee approval is expected, and the whole council could vote on the district at its meeting the next day.

“It’s an exciting time for the neighborhood,” said Alderman Manny Flores (1st Ward). “We are eagerly anticipating final passage.”

Flores said the landmark designation would do much to preserve a neighborhood that “speaks to the rich history of the City of Chicago.”

Though some residents watched a series of large condominium projects move into the area with dismay, it wasn’t until Preservation Chicago conducted a neighborhood survey and documented an abundance of historically significant buildings that the effort gained momentum.

The survey took place about two years ago, said Isaacson, and surprised many who thought the neighborhood didn’t have enough history to meet landmarking requirements.

“They were the people who gave us the authority to say, ‘yeah, we should do this.’”

Isaacson and her group, the West Town Preservation Association, drafted Flores, who helped them negotiate the maze of red tape that precludes a landmarking decision.

They received a significant boost when the Commission on Chicago Landmarks voted unanimously in favor of the proposal.

Based on that vote, Isaacson said she anticipates smooth sailing for the measure next week.

“This will be something that future generations will thank us for,” she said.