A developer who tore down a historic Uptown home and planned to build condos in its place has indicated he is in severe financial trouble, city officials say.
Chris Byrne recently got a controversial zoning change approved, in a process that critics say lacked openness. The change paved the way for the condo project.
Now, Byrne's financial status has raised questions about whether he could even proceed with the project at 4627 N. Beacon St.
The Daily News posed a question about Byrne's financial condition to Ald. Helen Shiller, (D-46), who was a key proponent of the zoning change.
Her spokeswoman, Maggie Marystone, responded in an e-mail that Byrne indicated to Shiller that he was in serious financial trouble.
Byrne declined to comment about his financial situation and referred the Daily News to his attorney, who did not return phone calls.
Byrne signed construction documents on June 29 binding the developer to building an 8-unit structure.
Sheridan Park resident David Weinberg says he is fine with the possibility that Byrne went through with the zoning request despite financial uncertainty —if the developer does in fact build a condo building.
James Cappleman, board president of the Uptown Chicago Commission, says, “There’s no way” Byrne can finance a development if he is struggling so severely with his finances.
“It's our belief he would probably sell it, and because the property has been upzoned, it has more value now,” Cappleman says. Cappleman ran against Shiller in the ward’s last aldermanic election.
A neighborhood in Uptown, Sheridan Park has been a National Landmark District since 1985. It is home to many grand single-family houses, several of them built more than a century ago. The home at 4627 N. Beacon was a large Victorian home built in the early 1890s.
The Uptown Chicago Commission says Byrne demolished the home in 2005, ignoring the surrounding community’s desire to preserve the house.
“This was a process where the community felt shut out,” Cappleman says.
“When you destroy buildings, you really destroy history—and you really destroy the character of the neighborhood,” says Jonathan Fine, executive director of Preservation Chicago, a local advocacy group.
The Uptown Chicago Commission wrote a letter to Shiller on May 12, signed by 14 local leaders and residents, accusing Byrne of performing interior demolitions without a permit. The commission asked Shiller not to allow the rezoning.
The zoning dispute began in January 2005 when Byrne purchased the Victorian home on Beacon, intending to rezone the property and build condominiums.
Byrne applied for a demolition permit in May 2005, but the permit was delayed for 90 days because the Chicago Historic Resources Survey said the home had significant architectural features and historical associations.
Community members accuse Byrne of removing a stairwell in the home in June 2005, two months before a demolition permit was approved.
That September, some 100 residents met with Ald. Shiller and a majority expressed wishes to preserve the house. Shiller indicated then that she wouldn't allow the rezoning without majority support from the community.
Nevertheless, Byrne razed the home three months later on Christmas Eve. In April he requested that the single-family home zoning be changed to allow him to build a condominium complex.
Shiller asked the Committee on Zoning to rezone the property at a June 4 hearing attended by several Sheridan Park residents and 46th ward community leaders who spoke against rezoning.
Sheridan Park resident Douglass Gottschalk says Shiller has “clearly gone out of her way” to help the developer.
Financial disclosures from Shiller’s 2007 aldermanic campaign show Byrne made $1,500 in contributions.
“Now, Ald. Shiller stated that she wasn’t aware that he had given money," says Cappleman. "And she stated that she was going to return those funds. I guess my concern is how come she wasn’t aware. She’s been a politician for 22 years—they should keep track of that,”
Uptown Chicago Commission Public Safety Committee chair Richard Thale, Cappleman’s partner, says he can’t make assumptions about why the alderman accepted donations from Byrne but that “the facts speak for themselves.”
Gottschalk doesn't think the developer's contributions to Shiller influenced the zoning dispute.
“[$1,500 is] not a large sum of money," says Gottschalk. "That’s a lot more out in the open than a lot of under-the-table donations that are being made, so I don’t have a problem with that at all.”
Marystone, Shiller's spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail: "Alderman Shiller does not generally have personal knowledge of the donations that are made to Citizens for Shiller. When she was informed that these contributions had been made, she arranged for the contributions to be returned so that there could be no appearance of impropriety."
Media reports indicate that Shiller asked for a rezoning to be granted because mistakes were made in handling the developer's request. Those errors meant that he bought the property without knowing its correct zoning, according to media reports.
Marystone wrote in an e-mail that Shiller “believes there should be one set of rules” and that because there was a “confluence of errors” on the part of her, the city, and the developer, Shiller supported Byrne’s request.
Cappleman believes Byrne should be held accountable for the mistake, not Shiller or the city.
“[Byrne] has developed a number of different properties that [the UCC] is aware of, and we believe that developers know that they should get insurance that confirms what they believe the zoning to be if they have plans to develop it," says Cappleman. "He did not do that,”
Sheridan Park resident Penny Barre stressed that the historic home is gone, the rezoning is final, and that residents need to move forward.
“I don’t think it's good for any of us to have an empty lot," Barre says. "We want to try to do what’s right for the neighborhood. The reality is the house is gone. It’s not coming back.”