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City Council Zoning Committee Rejects Proposed Pilsen Landmark District

CHICAGO (CBS) -- A City Council committee on Tuesday shot down a controversial plan to create one of the city's largest landmark districts in the Pilsen neighborhood, after the local alderman and many people in the neighborhood expressed fears the proposal would exacerbate gentrification and force low-income families out of their homes.

The proposed Pilsen Landmark District would have given landmark status to more than 900 Baroque-style buildings constructed between 1875 and 1910. The plan was first introduced in November 2018, and would have automatically gone into effect in January if it didn't receive a formal City Council vote before then.

The Zoning Committee voted 18-0 on Tuesday against the landmark district, meaning the landmark protections won't go into place.

Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) said 95% of the people in his ward opposed the landmark district, fearing it would increase their property tax bills, saddle them with extra costs to repair or renovate their buildings, and make it more difficult to sell their properties.

"This is a pivotal moment for communities like Pilsen. This is a community, as you all well know, that has been hurt for decades for the lack of accountability, the corruption, but more importantly than anything else, the lack of inclusion in the decision-making process that affects many immigrant families," the alderman said.

Several residents of Pilsen spoke out against the landmark district at Tuesday's virtual Zoning Committee meeting.

Virgina Lugo, a daughter of Mexican immigrants, said Pilsen property owners already face high property taxes and burdensome rules and regulations.

"The properties might not need repairs now, but eventually they'll need maintenance, and it will cost them a lot more with all the restrictions, rules, and regulations they'll have to follow; not to mention the process of obtaining permits," Lugo said. "The high cost of repairs and maintenance will obligate low-income and long-term property owners to either sell their homes or lose them to the fines and fees they may get."

Adrian Diaz, who grew up in Pilsen, said her mother still owns one of the homes that would be designated as a landmark, and is already struggling with increasing property taxes, and could not afford the added expenses that would come with adhering to landmark requirements. She called the proposed landmark district "insidious in nature," saying it would only worsen gentrification in Pilsen.

"A reasonable person would argue that if you designate Pilsen a historic district, a second wave of displacement will occur, because people like my mother will not be able to keep up with the exacting standards of the historic district," she said. "Let's be clear, why are we valuing Bohemian-inspired buildings over people's lives?"

Chicago Planning Commissioner Maurice Cox argued the landmark district would have regulated only changes to the exteriors of buildings, and said the city would have worked with the community to come up with specific guidelines to help longtime property owners keep their buildings.

Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, said the proposed landmark district was designed to protect the fabric of the community, as well as longtime business owners, homeowners, and tenants.

"We believe in our heart of hearts is the best and most lawful tried and true and reasonable path to protecting one of Chicago's most vulnerable and historically significant communities from destruction, displacement, and upheaval," he said.

Sigcho-Lopez has said he favors a six-month moratorium on demolitions on a larger area of Pilsen while officials work on a longer-term plan to address gentrification, similar to a plan along the Bloomingdale Trail earlier this year.

However, the Lightfoot administration raised concerns that the alderman's proposed demolition moratorium would be impossible to manage, because it would be much more sweeping than the one put in place along the Bloomingdale Trail. Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th) also pointed out the moratorium would include part of his ward, but Sigcho-Lopez had not yet consulted him.

Miller said a demolition moratorium would open the door to legal challenges from current property owners, and would not provide long-term protections for historic buildings.

"The historic buildings of Pilsen are unique in their architecture and design, and offering affordable dwellings and homes for many residents. Without some type of solid, tried and true protections, we believe from our experience in working in Chicago neighborhoods for many years, that Pilsen will no longer be the same community in a short time. It will most likely be pulverized by new market-rate developments, as witnessed recently, and will force its long-term residents and stakeholders out of the community," he said.

The Zoning Committee rejected Sigcho-Lopez's demolition moratorium on a 7-11 vote, but the alderman said he was committed to working with the Lightfoot administration on a compromise, and vowed to carve out the 11th Ward from his proposal.

The alderman said he's also working with the Lightfoot administration on a "deconversion ordinance" that would require property owners to obtain a zoning change before converting two- to six-flats into single family homes in an effort to prevent current renters from being forced out of their homes.

"Of course, we want to consider every tool available to us to address the number one issue that we have in our community, which is displacement," he said. "We have a path forward. Gentrification is not inevitable, my colleagues. We can and we should provide solutions to our residents."

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