Uptown zoning issue coming to head

A meeting to resolve a long-standing conflict over zoning on a 1.3 mile stretch of Broadway Street, originally planned for the month of January, has been pushed back to next month.

On one side of the zoning conflict are concerned Edgewater residents—on the other, people interested in attracting developers to the neighborhood. Sources from both sides confirm that they will be settling the dispute at a meeting of the 48th Ward Zoning & Planning Committee, originally planned for the month of January.

Greg Harris, Alderman Mary Ann Smith's chief of staff, still has not chosen a date or time for the meeting, though he recently announced that it has been pushed back to sometime in February. Some block clubs do not meet until the end of January, Harris said, and requested extra time to meet and discuss the issue.

The conflict over Broadway zoning centers primarily around the height of proposed buildings. In a letter dated June 4, 2004, Alderman Smith wrote: 'Current zoning on both sides of Broadway allows 65 foot building as a right with no community or aldermanic approval or sign-off needed. I have received hundreds of petitions, letters and anguished phone calls from residents upset that developers can purchase property and build something that tall next to their homes and the community has no say.'

'To be fair,' she continued, 'there are also those who have spoken to me in favor of developer's rights under zoning, who have pointed out that, given land values, a developer needs height to make good profits.'

Patricia Sharkey, president of the Edgewater North Neighbors block club, is one of those leading the fight to get Broadway zoning changed to something more in line with what she sees as the neighborhood's natural character. As her allies, Sharkey claims Steve Meiss of the Edgewater Glen Association and Mark Roschen of the Lakewood Balmoral Resident's Council—as well as, she says, most of the neighborhood residents.

To hear Sharkey tell it, Edgewater is a community on its way up. 'In the 50s and 60s, it was a thriving, community kind of area,' she says. In the decades after, however, 'slum landlords' caused the character of the community to degrade: 'We've had a lot of absentee landlords who own properties and leave them, and that's it.'

Families have begun to return to the neighborhood in recent years, but Sharkey fears that if developers are allowed to build six story high-rise buildings along Broadway, they will be tempted to throw up buildings on the cheap and leave them to degrade rather than investing in the community.

'They own property and they want the highest buck for it,' says Sharkey. 'We think, at the end of the day, lower zoning is going to influence more quality development, maintain the character of the neighborhood, and produce more affordable housing.'

Other block clubs in the area have been vocal about the more immediate consequences of allowing high rises into neighborhoods filled with relatively short houses. The Carmen-Winona Block Club, for example, sent off a letter to Alderman Smith in early December complaining that several proposed developments will 'dwarf the neighboring buildings and shift the scale of the neighborhood.'

'These taller buildings,' reads the letter, 'wrapping around the north side of Winona, will give Winona residents a very closed-in, dark feeling in their own homes.'

In response to last year's proposals for the construction of several such buildings, various block clubs began pushing Alderman Smith to 'downzone' Broadway—that is, to lower the code governing height allowances from its present form (dash 3) to something smaller and more in keeping with current architecture (dash 2).

Alderman Smith pledged last June to introduce an ordinance downzoning the west side of Broadway to dash 2, but according to Sharkey, it still has yet to be enacted.

Indeed, the move is not without its opponents. Sheli Lulkin, Executive Director of the Edgewater Chamber of Commerce and president of the Association of Sheridan Road Condominium and Coop Owners, has been vocal in her opposition to downzoning.

The issue with downzoning, she says, is that it doesn't just influence height—it also affects density. 'You want to be able to have a little variety in the type of retail,' says Lulkin. 'Not every business needs the same type of space.'

As an alternative to downzoning, says Lulkin, the Edgewater Chamber of Commerce has 'united' with the Edgewater Development Corporation and the Edgewater Uptown Builder's Association. 'The three of us have put forth a proposal,' she says.

According to Lulkin, their proposal enjoys the support of several block clubs, and is opposed by only two. Timothy Harrington, Chairman of the Board of the Edgewater Chamber of Commerce, was able to provide an explanation of the alternative proposal.

Harrington says that the two proposals are identical except for their dash designation. Both proposals would, for example, prevent the construction of any further car-related businesses, such as auto repair shops. The proposal that Harrington supports, however, would keep Broadway zoned as dash 3.

Both Harrington and Lulkin downplay the impact that retaining dash 3 will have on building height. 'I feel that the idea that it will be six story buildings all along Broadway is ridiculous,' says Harrington. 'The much more important component of that zoning ratio is the FAR.'

FAR, or floor area ratio, governs the size of buildings by number of square feet. Harrington claims that FAR requirements would restrict most buildings to five stories, and that fire code regulations would probably cause most buildings to end up with four.

So why keep dash 3 to begin with? Why not downzone to dash 2? 'It's a 4-month issue,' says Harrington. 'I just think we're going to lose too many developers doing that.' The world of real estate is fast-paced, he says, and many commercial developers might not want to wait for a committee to approve projects that fall outside the narrower bounds of dash 2.

Of course, there is a flip side to that. 'It would give the community control over pretty much anything that happens on Broadway,' admits Harrington. 'Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily.'

Alderman Smith is hoping that the upcoming meeting will result in a compromise proposal that makes everyone happy. In a letter sent to Edgewater block club presidents, Smith wrote: 'I strongly feel that getting input from all our community organizations and block clubs, and then coming forward with a single compromise proposal which serves the needs of Edgewater is the best possible outcome.'