Photography: Selena Salfen
If only it could fit in the palm of her hand: Sears holds the model she made of the mansion that will soon be her neighbor.
The Independence Park neighborhood, tucked on the Northwest Side just east of the Kennedy Expressway, hides from easy view. But in 2004, when an architect named Sharon Sears decided to buy her first house, she knew she wanted to live there. Visiting a friend in the neighborhood, Sears had noticed the quiet streets lined with towering maple trees and the modest-sized, century-old houses. She appreciated the wide spaces between the homes that set Independence Park apart from the more congested areas in Chicago. “There were no cars barreling down the streets,” says Sears. “The neighborhood was more or less hidden, off the grid.”
So when she was shown an 87-year-old Dutch Colonial at the end of Lawndale Avenue, she knew it was the house for her. It had the feel of an old farmhouse, with spacious rooms, the original wood moldings and trim, and a front porch bordered by a white picket railing. The house would be roomy enough to hold the brass bed and other antiques she had just inherited from her grandmother.
Sears checked out everything, including the empty lot adjacent to the property. She was told that someone had bought the lot a few years earlier and was planning to build a single-family house on it. She even checked out the zoning status of the lot and was told it was zoned like the rest of the neighborhood.
In July 2004 Sears bought the house and moved in. Susan Ryan, who lives three doors down, threw a big welcoming party and Sears met a lot of her new neighbors. She was excited to own her first house, and in a neighborhood she loved.
Those good feelings lasted just nine months-or until Sears learned that the lot next door had actually been rezoned two years before so the owner, the developer and hip-hop record producer Rudy Acosta, could build a huge house. He planned to put up a 44-foot-high, approximately 7,000-square-foot structure festooned with turrets and battlements-in other words, a house that resembled a medieval castle, only without the moat.
The castle would dwarf Sears’s house-2,100 feet square and 26 feet high-and would be dramatically out of scale with the other houses in the neighborhood. Sears was aghast. She set out to discover how this had happened, with the hope that she might prevent the castle from being built.
So far, she and her neighbors have failed-construction got under way last November-but their efforts have opened a window on Chicago’s zoning procedures and the questionable circumstances and interlocking relationships that led to this case.
“I wouldn’t want that house built next to my house,” says Margaret Laurino, the alderman for the 39th Ward, which now includes the Independence Park neighborhood after redistricting. Laurino says that if she had been in office when the lot came up for rezoning, she would have opposed the change.
But in the Kafkaesque world of Chicago zoning, even Rudy Acosta is angry over the events so far. In a recent obscenity-salted interview, Acosta vented his frustrations with the neighborhood residents and with Laurino, claiming that he had followed all the rules and shouldn’t have had to face so many obstacles, including the denial of a variance that would have allowed him to build closer to Sears’s house. “Alderman [Michael] Wojcik signed off on the rezoning,” says Acosta. “Laurino was in full support of the variance until the neighbors got upset.” (Acosta claims Laurino even sent him a letter of support for the variance, but his lawyer did not respond to repeated requests for a copy of the letter. Laurino denies ever having sent such a letter.) Despite the turmoil, Acosta is going forward. “This is a free country,” he says. “I don’t care what the neighbors think. This house is what I like; I personally designed it. If they want me to build a colonial, that’s not what I like.”
Photograph: Selena Salfen
The Sears model purports to show that Acosta’s castle (right) would tower over her house (left) in the Independence Park neighborhood.
Jonathan Fine, a practicing architect and president of the activist group Preservation Chicago, says that the story of the castle should be the poster child for reform of the process for getting changes in the zoning code. “This kind of incident occurs hundreds of times a year in scores of neighborhoods all across the city,” says Fine.
The story starts in December 2000, four years before Sears came to the neighborhood, when Acosta bought an empty lot on the 3700 block of Lawndale Avenue from the Illinois Department of Transportation. The CEO of The Legion Records, Acosta has produced CDs for hip-hop groups such as Do or Die. He has also been a developer for over 12 years, having bought more than 200 properties.
A little over a year after buying the Lawndale Avenue lot, Acosta applied for a zoning change, having retained the lawyer and politician John Fritchey to handle the work. State representative for the 11th District on the city’s North Side, Fritchey has won many awards for his work on behalf of child safety and the elderly and for promoting ethics in government. He also happens to be married to the niece of William Banks, the alderman who is the chairman of the city council’s zoning committee, which hears requests for zoning changes and passes its recommendation to the full council. Banks has said he recuses himself from voting on all zoning matters that involve his family.
Residential zoning in Chicago has ten categories, though five pertain to high-density buildings, including high-rises and apartment complexes. The other five categories-loosely termed R1, R2, R3, R3.5, and R4-allow for homes of increasing sizes. Sears’s home is zoned R3, and all of Independence Park is either R2 or R3; Acosta was asking for R4, which allows for a considerably bigger house. (Independence Park, part of the Irving Park neighborhood, is bordered by Montrose Avenue, Elston Avenue, Pulaski Road, and the Kennedy Expressway.)
Fritchey says that, as required by law, he sent letters noting the request by certified mail to residents of the 53 homes around the Acosta lot. He also signed an affidavit stating that he had sent them out.
Of the 53 names on the list, however, only one resident, Pat Clark, has publicly produced the notice that arrived by certified mail. “I didn’t have a clue what R4 meant,” says Clark. “I called John Fritchey, Acosta’s attorney. He said that it was a single-family home. If I was on the ball I would have asked some questions. I was too trusting.”
At the time of the request, Edward Kus headed the city’s zoning department as zoning administrator. “There are over a thousand zoning changes a year in the city of Chicago,” says Kus, now a partner in the law firm Shefsky and Froelich. “For every rezoning, the zoning administrator makes a recommendation to the city council. The recommendation is advisory only, to provide guidance and input.” From the zoning administrator, the rezoning request goes before the zoning committee of the city council, explains Kus, before going to the full council for a final vote.
In March 2002, Kus advised against re-zoning Acosta’s property. “When I’d see a complete neighborhood zoned R3, I would recommend against an R4,” says Kus. “I felt that in those cases an R4 would be an intrusion-that is, it would be out of character.”
Despite the Kus recommendation, the zoning committee, chaired by Banks and composed of a dozen or so aldermen, approved the zoning change in April 2002. The city council followed suit by passing it in May. (Banks recused himself.)
One reason the rezoning passed so easily was that no residents came forward to object to it. What’s more, the alderman at the time, Michael Wojcik (30th), gave his approval. (The members of the city council almost always abide by what is known as “aldermanic courtesy"-showing deference to the position of the local alderman on rezoning matters.) Calls to Wojcik were not returned.
In September, residents of the Independence Park neighborhood received letters from the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals-which handles exceptions to existing zoning laws-alerting neighbors that Acosta wanted a variance to build closer to the property line of the house next door (the house Sears would buy two years later).
Although Acosta’s property had already been rezoned to R4, the variance notice stated that his lot was zoned R3. (Kus says the discrepancy probably represents a bureaucratic snafu-there is typically a time lag between a zoning change and the updating of the records.) “The reason nobody complained when we got the variance letter was that it stated that the single-family residence was R3 in an R3 neighborhood,” says Linda Allison, who grew up in the neighborhood and then raised her own family there.
Susan Ryan says that when she heard about the variance notice she e-mailed Fritchey and was told that a single-family home was going to be built. “He didn’t mention it had been rezoned,” says Ryan. “I concluded, therefore, that it was going to be in keeping with the neighborhood.”
The board of appeals, which has final say, approved the variance in September 2002. Two years later, when Sears contemplated buying her house, she had her real-estate agent call the zoning department to ascertain the zoning status. The agent was told: R3. “It would have changed everything for me if I was told it was R4,” says Sears. “When you believe you’ve done appropriate due diligence and the ‘facts’ turn out to be false, it’s a bad feeling.”
In February 2005 the residents got notice of a second request by Acosta for a variance-the first had expired before Acosta acted on it. The new request stated that Acosta’s property was zoned R4-signaling for the first time, the neighbors say, that the property had been rezoned. By this time, Acosta had changed attorneys, replacing Fritchey with James Banks, a nephew of the zoning committee chairman, William Banks (and Fritchey’s brother-in-law).
When neighbors looked at documents on file related to the rezoning, they found a photo of the sign that had been posted on the property giving notice of the request for rezoning, as required by law. Ryan says that she hasn’t found a neighbor who ever saw the posted sign. “We questioned whether the sign was up just long enough to take a picture,” she says. “Even if the notice had been posted, the photo clearly shows that the sign was facing the back alley, making it nearly impossible to be viewed.” The law requires the sign to be on a major street visible to the public and easily seen from the street.
The neighbors also found the affidavit signed by Fritchey stating that he had complied with the notification requirements. But 21 of the neighbors insist they never got the certified letter, and they have signed documents attesting to that fact. (Pat Clark is the only neighbor to acknowledge receiving the letter; for a variety of reasons, 31 of the 53 homeowners have not become involved.)
Sears, Ryan, and another neighbor, Dorene Jordan, decided to lead a fight to stop the variance and rescind the rezoning. With Alderman Laurino’s support, they organized the neighborhood, collected 350 signatures, and presented their case at a hearing before the Zoning Board of Appeals on June 17, 2005. This time, the board rejected the variance.
Their attempt to rescind the rezoning turned into a harder case, however. Laurino told them she couldn’t help because the rezoning had happened before Independence Park became part of her ward.
No city agency was interested in their plight. The legal department said it couldn’t help. Mayor Daley’s office ignored them. The neighbors filed a complaint with the Inspector General’s office, which interviewed Ryan and Sears. David Hoffman, the inspector general, declines to comment on whether his office is conducting an investigation.
Fritchey says he no longer has the certified mail receipts that would prove he sent the notification letters, but he insists he complied fully with the notification procedure. He says that the use of certified mail is a problem for several reasons: many people won’t sign for a certified letter; the post office can make errors; and, when asked, many residents may not remember that they received letters three years earlier.
Fritchey says he was able to find an in-voice to Acosta for the cost of sending 53 certified letters, $208.82 on February 2, 2002, and he thinks that goes a long way toward proving that he sent the letters out. In light of his efforts to rid Springfield of corruption, Fritchey says, “there’s a horrific irony in me being accused of trying to end-run the system.” He is distressed by what he considers unsubstantiated allegations made by the neighbors. “I’m sincerely compassionate for the residents’ frustration with the process, but that doesn’t justify the character assassination of an innocent man,” says Fritchey.
Fritchey threatened to file a defamation lawsuit against Sears for certain public statements she had made. Sears has since retracted the comments.
Greg Furda, an expert on zoning law at Sidley Austin Brown and Wood and an adjunct professor at Loyola University Law School, says that although it’s unusual for only one person out of 53 to have a notification letter, an attorney’s only obligation is to sign the affidavit, along with an official list of those to be notified. Fritchey complied.
Furda contends that the problem, if there is one, lies with the city council. “What were the standards that the city council used to justify zoning an R4 residence in an R3 neighborhood?” asks Furda.
Jordan, Ryan, and many other neighbors, however, believe that they were taken advantage of by well-connected insiders who know how to play the system and capitalize on the neighbors’ ignorance of zoning law. “It seems improbable to me that so many in our neighborhood can’t remember or didn’t retain such an important letter as a rezoning letter, when many of them kept the less significant variance letter in their files,” says Jordan. “It seems more likely to me that the complete mailing never happened and that because of that we were unable to show up and defend our neighborhood at a hearing we didn’t know about.”
The City of Chicago revised its zoning code in 2004, and did away with the requirement of notification by certified mail. Notice is now sent by first-class mail. “Too many people complained that they didn’t get the green slips or pick up the mail,” says Kirk Bishop, an urban planner with Duncan Associates who assisted in the rewrite. But, he says, even that change may not be enough. “It is the norm in other cities that the city is in charge of notification,” says Bishop. “It’s more efficient and it reduces the possibility of an individual not playing by the rules or not understanding them. There’s more accountability when the city is in charge.”
Jonathan Fine of Preservation Chicago argues that the current system is tilted toward developers. He points out that developers make many of the biggest contributions to the election campaigns of aldermen. “Getting a zoning change in Chicago is easier than getting a driver’s license,” says Fine. “In the suburbs, if you live in a residential neighborhood and want a larger house, you can’t get a zoning change. But in Chicago you can. With a rezoning you don’t have the tougher standards that come with getting a variance. You should not be able to change zoning on a case-by-case basis within a residential district as is being done now.”
“If the people of the Independence Park neighborhood didn’t have the opportunity to object to the rezoning of the castle, then the system didn’t work as intended,” says Bishop. “The process of rezoning obviously has impacts that are neighborhood wide. The process should be transparent. When it isn’t, the process isn’t working that well.”
In March, a six-foot-high fence surrounded Acosta’s property, where construction of the castle is under way. From her second-story window, Sears can now look down on the site below. Near the concrete foundation, which has already been laid, she can see cinder blocks stacked ten feet high, black pipes scattered on the ground. In the distance, beyond the construction site, Sears can see the Sears Tower. She knows that it is just a matter of time before her view becomes the massive north wall of the castle.
“We were not just let down by the system; we were abandoned by it,” Sears says today. “Those in the city government who had the opportunity to prevent the intrusion of a home that is so out of scale and character to our quaint and charming neighborhood really let us down.”