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This Old House Will Soon Be a Vacant Lot

Here’s a look at both sides of a preservation and development debate in the Sheridan Park section of Uptown.

Photo: Dennis Rodkin

List Price: $525,000
Sale Price: $525,000
The Property: After skirmishing with preservationists all fall, the developers who bought this 19th-century home in the Sheridan Park section of Uptown on January 10 say they’ll demolish it soon. That’s even though they don’t expect to get approval to build an apartment building in its place.

“I’ll knock it down and it will be another vacant lot in Uptown,” Mike Finan told me. With his wife, Liz, Finan owns and manages a portfolio of rentals in and near Uptown. They also own O’Shaugnessy’s Public House in Ravenswood. Two weeks after this house on a double city lot went on the market in August, the Finans put in a contract at the full asking price, planning to replace the 2,700-square-foot Victorian with a six-flat of rentals.

Opposition to demolishing the house sprung up quickly. “It’s a beautiful house, and it’s perfectly capable of being restored,” Martin Tangora, one of the most vocal opponents, told me Friday. Tangora is a board member at Landmarks Illinois and an emeritus math professor at UIC; he lives in a historical house next door to the subject property.

“I had hoped they would prefer to see it rehabbed,” Tangora said of seller Thomas Rutherford, an elderly man whose family has owned the house for decades. He says Rutherford turned down an offer from a rehabber that was $5,000 less than the Finans offered.

Because it dates to the early urbanization of Uptown, predating the multi-unit apartment buildings on its block, Truman College around the corner, and Uptown’s trio of grand old theaters a few blocks away, the house is coded orange on the city’s landmarks inventory. Orange is for buildings with potential significance, either architectural or historical.

And although the house has stood vacant for two decades and was gutted by a fire about 18 years ago, it’s been kept up on the exterior. “Most people didn’t know it was vacant,” said David Panozzo, the Coldwell Banker agent who represented the house for Rutherford and who lives in the neighborhood. “The owners mowed the lawn and some years they hung up Christmas lights. They took care of the outside.”

The condition of the interior, on the other hand, was disputed. Fans of the house distributed some photos of mint-condition original features, such as a fireplace and stained-glass windows, to make the case that the house could be saved. But Liz Finan says they don’t accurately depict the home’s interior (she sent the interior photos below). She says that several years after the fire, the Rutherfords started renovations by rehabbing the fireplace, some windows and some vintage wood trim, but that the rest of the house has extensive fire damage and mold. Most walls are bare studs, and there is no water, electrical service, or sewer connection. According to Liz Finan, some original woodwork is badly damaged where water has leaked in through rotten window frames.

The house’s orange listing delayed demolition for 90 days, and the Finans’ contract was contingent on getting a demolition permit. To build a multi-unit in its place, they’d also need to get the site “up-zoned” from single-family to multi-unit use. The Finans argue that most of the block is multi-family buildings—by my count, there are 13, and five houses, some of which appear to have been split up into apartments—so that it’s really the single-family homes that are non-conforming. But retaining single-family zoning where it exists has been a hot button in the neighborhood for several years.

After a pair of public meetings, Ald. James Cappleman declined to approve up-zoning. But the demolition permit followed the end of the 90-day waiting period, and on January 10, the Finans closed their purchase of the property.

Friday, Mike Finan told me that they don’t expect to get approval to build a multi-unit building while Cappleman is in office, but because they have approval for demolition, “I’m going to demo it and let that vacant lot sit there,” he said. “It didn’t do the neighborhood any good sitting there vacant for 20 years, and a vacant lot won’t do any better.”

Tangora disagreed. He said he doesn’t mind the two well-tended and fenced vacant lots that are already on the block (one is on the other side of his house; after this demolition, he’ll have vacant lots on two sides). “A vacant lot can be an attractive nuisance, or a beautiful, parklike space,” he said.

Price Points: While Tangora and other preservationists argued that the house could be rehabbed, Liz Finan says it wouldn’t be cost-effective.

A “bare minimum” restoration would cost at least $250,000, she estimated. Comparable homes in good condition go for about $700,000, she determined—or $75,000 less than they’d have in the house with purchase and rehab costs. Doing a high-end renovation might push the total investment over $1 million, she said, and “that’s not feasible on that block.”

Her husband added that high-end homebuyers aren’t as likely to “take a risk on living in the neighborhood” as renters are, making the idea of building new rentals a better plan for the site.

Listing Agent: David Panozzo of Coldwell Banker, 312-440-7510 and david.panozzo@cbexchange.com

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