A tale of 3 East Village demolitions

By Scott A. Rappe 

Despite the recession, continued financing difficulties and a glut of condominiums, demolitions continue unabated in East Village.

In the span of two weeks, three unique buildings have been lost forever, each for a different reason, all with the same result: a vacant lot that forever breaks the continuity of the past with the present.

A story of greed and waste

1546 W. Augusta was a truly striking building: a gorgeous prototypical East Village red-brick two-flat complete with its original cornice, porch and windows. What vintage building owner doesn’t wish theirs still had these original features intact?

This lovely building is the latest victim of Ald. Walter Burnett’s methodical spot upzoning of the area east of Ashland Avenue. This portion of East Village was downzoned to R-3 by former Ald. Jesse Granato more than a decade ago.

The zoning change helped buildings like this one survive the recent development boom because they offered an important advantage over new construction. They were larger than the new structures that might replace them could be under the new zoning classification.

Unfortunately, Ald. Burnett sealed the fate of 1546 W. Augusta by increasing the zoning an egregious three classifications to RM4.5. Density is a highly desirable goal in our urban environment, and one that should be encouraged, but it is not the issue here.

The new building will not be any larger than its predecessor; it will simply provide three units where two existed before. This will add to the glut of unwanted small condominiums and reduce the number of units that available for families, ultimately contributing to a more transient population.

The real irony is that the new building will be constructed under the Chicago Green Permit program. Nothing could be less "green" than tearing down a perfectly serviceable structure.

It is widely recognized among building professionals and sustainability experts that even the most energy efficient new construction may never offset the embodied energy lost in demolition. Using the Teardown Calculator at www.thegreenestbuilding.org, I estimated that the energy lost in just this one demolition is 6,248,400,000 BTUs, or about what it would take to heat an average-size apartment for more than 200 years. One step forward, two steps back.

A slumlord prevails

920 N. Winchester represents the polar opposite situation. With no desire to sell or develop his property, absentee owner Vujovic Petkovic was content to simply allow it to deteriorate. He refused to secure the building and allowed it to become a nuisance.

Some neighbors, having lost their patience with Petkovic, demanded that Ald. Scott Waguespack force the building into demolition. I do not want to diminish the plight of the neighbors because this was a difficult problem, but demolition was not the proper answer.

Destruction of a sound vintage building should never be an option for solving the short-term problems caused by a particular owner. East Village has endured several cycles of decline; if we had torn down every building that at some point had a neglectful owner, nothing would be left.

This building served its community for a century and could have continued to do so in perpetuity with proper care. The fact that it was not currently receiving that care does not negate its value or long-term potential. But its loss has precluded its eventual return to proper care and service.

The vintage East Village building stock is among the highest quality in the city. Its locally fired brick, old-growth wood framing and high-quality design never will be seen again, and certainly not in what would likely replace this building now that it is gone (particularly if Petkovic was to rebuild). Our vintage buildings are resilient and highly resistant to neglect, though they may appear decrepit.

As with 1546 W. Augusta, the materials and embodied energy stored within a structure like 920 N. Winchester are a valuable resource made all the more precious by the current scarcity of such materials and growing concern for the environment.

Ultimately, the neighbors clamoring for demolition got what they asked for. Only time will tell if a trash-strewn vacant lot is better than a neglected building. All of us are the worse for the loss of this classic building, except Petkovic. His property, taxed at a ridiculous $2,500 per year, can now be reassessed lower as vacant land.

A rush to demolition

1726 W. Augusta was a typical three-story common brick structure with a gabled roof, modified perhaps in the 1930s with a yellow brick facade. At the rear of the lot stood a fascinating gable-roofed coach house, a unique structure that would not be built under current zoning codes. This building was no landmark, but even vacant it played an important supporting role as the authentic infill between more important buildings.

In our debates over which buildings to preserve, we often lose sight of the role these "background" buildings play in setting the stage for the drama of true landmarks. I am not arguing that every building be preserved; there are legitimate reasons to replace buildings, even at the loss of significant embodied energy.

What is troubling about this demolition is that no permit application for a new structure has yet been filed. Despite the rush to demolition, it this property will probably remain a vacant lot for a very long time.

When construction does resume, I hope that what is built favors community over individuality. Urban landscapes once were ruled by a self-imposed civility in which important buildings deferred to each other. Now even insignificant buildings vie for our attention. Too often developers build as if theirs was the only building on the block, and architects (on the rare occasion when one is involved) draw as if each were the only building they will ever have the opportunity to design.

What do we lose when we lose buildings like these? Buildings connect us to the long-forgotten people who built this place and lived, laughed, loved and died here before us. Our predecessors are gone, and when their buildings disappear, this place becomes just like any other: anonymous, unanchored and drifting.

When we lose what makes our community unique, we face oblivion just like our forgotten predecessors. The excellent design, material quality and physical integrity of these buildings make the loss ever more tragic. The very fabric of our neighborhood has been diminished.

Scott A. Rappe chairs EVA’s Planning, Preservation and Development committee. The opinions in this article are his own.

The long, secret life of disposables

Eco-Tip by Marjorie Isaacson

A simple, but far from easy, rule of environmentally responsible living is to avoid throwaway items and substitute reusable items instead.

It's difficult to follow because disposable items are so handy and relatively inexpensive. To put convenience items in perspective, think of their real cost — an analysis know as life-cycle or cradle-to-grave economics.

For example, manufacturing processes often cause environmental damage and produce harmful byproducts that we don't pay for directly. The real costs aren't clear.

It can be easy to overlook tradeoffs of time and energy in using disposables. Consider disposable plates, glasses and silverware: Is it really easier and less time-consuming to go to the store, select and purchase items, transport them home from the store, and later take them out to the garbage, over and over again? The short-term economic costs of garbage pickup are significant enough, much less the long-term cost of landfill disposal.

One easy change is to use cloth napkins instead of paper ones. Many people are reluctant to make this change because they don't want more laundry. But you won't have to use a new napkin for every meal. Many people who use cloth napkins reuse them several times before they wash them. I first learned about this while traveling in France. The family I visited tied or folded their napkins in different shapes after using them. They were kept in a basket between meals and reused until they were washed or you decided you needed a new one.

Napkin rings with different designs are another way to keep personal napkins identified. I use a wooden set decorated with different carved animals. (Note: this is for dining en familia. Guests at my house always get clean, fresh napkins!)

If you want to reduce and reuse even more, you don't need to go out to a housewares store and buy new cloth napkins. Make your own from leftover fabric. I've made napkins from the unworn sections of old sheets. For everyday use, you don't even need to hem them. A fringed edge is a common decoration on store-bought napkins.

Board meeting minutes for Aug. 14, 2009

Submitted by Dana Palmer

Board Members: John Scheer, Brodi Cole, Dana Palmer, Stephen Rynkiewicz, Rich Anselmo and Scott Rappe
Non-Board Members: Marjorie Isaacson and Brian Thompson

  1. August barbecue review: Approximately 120 people came with 10 new memberships acquired that evening earning $200 for EVA. Suggestions for improving next year's barbecue were to have name tags and a possible raffle for those who join that evening.

  2. Monthly membership meeting for September will be moved from the first Monday, Labor Day 9/7/09, to second Monday, 9/14/09 at same place and time.

  3. Possible speakers for next meeting: New businesses in East Village such as Urban Joe's, Jam, Division Ale House and Green Heart. John Scheer will attempt to speak with new businesses about doing an introduction at membership meetings. Also, Chamber of Commerce or the SSAs for Bucktown/Wicker Park and Chicago Avenue were suggestions for the upcoming membership meeting.

  4. Dana Palmer will send an email notice to all members of EVA regarding the change of date for September membership meeting.

  5. Brodi Cole and Steve Crane will work on consolidating the membership list to include the new members from the barbecue.

  6. John Scheer shared that the library to be established in the Goldblatt's building has been put on hold due to a study regarding the load limit for book and bookcase storage.

  7. The EVA monthly newsletter will be printed and sent to all members without an email address before the end of each month. Dana Palmer will print and send them. It was also agreed that each month's newsletter should be printed for archiving.

  8. Planning, Preservation and Development: Scott Rappe reported that 1142 N. Wolcott is under structural review regarding possible demolition. He also shared that 1810 W. Cortland has a new owner who has applied for demolition. Scott is asking for phone calls to the alderman to request landmarking due to it being Richard Nickel's home. Rich Anselmo stated that 920 N. Winchester has already begun demolition.

Goldblatt's library conversion delayed

By Aaron Bilton

The last time that I received an update about the new West Town library, I was informed that the work would begin this summer and that the library would late first quarter 2010. After going by the Goldblatt's building and not seeing any work being done, I decided to call and see what was going on.

The latest update is that the city is still going ahead with the conversion at Chicago and Ashland avenues, but the timetable has been pushed back. Construction is expected to start early in 2010 with an opening next summer. The reason I was given for the delay:

Originally the city hoped the structure could hold all the books. However, a structural analysis found the building would need reinforcement for bookcases. Now the city is looking at options on the best way to do that, and is hoping to begin construction in January.

Confirming that the project is still active, Mayor Daley mentioned the library this weekend as one of the infrastructure projects to be performed by the city in the next year, according to the Sun-Times.

Green Music Fest in Eckhart Park

Art Brut, a European rock band often compared to Franz Ferdinand, headlines the Green Music Fest Saturday in Eckhart Park, 1330 W. Chicago.

Sunday main attraction for the two-day event is Memphis alt-country band Lucero. Music extends from noon till 10 p.m. both days.

The West Town Chicago Chamber of Commerce, which organizes the West Fest and Do-Division fairs, bills the event as a gathering of "environmentally-conscious bands" booked by the Subterranean nightclub, with an Eco-Friendly Vendor Village.

Tickets are $15; $25 for a two-day pass. Children under 12 attend free with adult admission. Discount advance-sale tickets are available via ticketweb.com.

St. Boniface restoration on Eckhart Park agenda

Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. will discuss plans to save St. Boniface Church at the Aug. 18 meeting of the Eckhart Park Community Council.

Previously, the 27th Ward alderman reported that the Archdiocese of Chicago and the City of Chicago have been negotiating a potential land swap. The city would take possession of the property and identify a developer to restore or adapt the church building at 921 N. Noble.

However, the Roman Catholic archdiocese has the necessary permits to demolish the church and remaining buildings.

The East Village Association has called for restoration and reuse of the church, which it fought to save in a demolition threat a decade ago.

The meeting is 7 p.m. at the Northwestern Settlement House, 1010 N. Noble. Updates are posted at saintbonifaceinfo.com.

2009 EVA summer barbecue photos

2009 EVA Summer Barbecue
View slideshow from 2009 EVA Summer Barbecue

Turnout was estimated at more than 100 at the EVA summer barbecue. Thanks to those that joined or renewed their membership (if you did not, renew at eastvillagechicago.org). Thanks also to sponsors Happy Village, The Boundary Tavern & Grille, Cafe Piccolo and Dominick’s Finer Foods.