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“This is my ward”: Onni Group’s Old Town Park debate a test of “aldermanic prerogative”

Onni Group President Rossano de Cotiis (Credit: Twitter)

Onni Group’s plans for a third luxury apartment tower in Old Town turned into a test of aldermanic prerogative at the Chicago Plan Commission meeting this week, with Alderman Walter Burnett (27th) objecting to attempts to delay the project.

The Canadian developer is seeking city approval for the third phase of its four-phase redevelopment of the former Atrium Village apartment complex near Wells and Hill streets in Old Town. Onni already delivered a 32-story, 405-unit tower at 1140 North Wells Street, and last week received a $125 million construction loan for its planned 428-unit tower at the site.

The developer is now working to build a 41-story, 456-unit tower near Wells and Hill streets, a project that was up for a vote at the Plan Commission’s Thursday meeting. (The project’s fourth phase involves the rehabbing of an existing 209-unit complex at the site.)

Burnett supports the development, and projects typically don’t even make it before the commission without the blessing of their ward’s alderman. And the City Council tradition known as aldermanic prerogative holds that developments supported by the home alderman get approved by the council. Those not supported by the alderman almost never do.

But after hearing from residents who said Onni is reneging on a pledge to include affordable units in each phase of its development, North Side Alderman Tom Tunney (44th) suggested the commission hold off on a vote on the Onni project until Burnett broker peace between the residents and developer.

Burnett did not like the sound of that.

“You’re stepping too far, Tom” Burnett shouted to Tunney during the meeting. “This is my ward. You’re getting involved with my politics.”

Onni bought the Atrium Village apartment complex in 2014. It signed a restrictive covenant with the site’s former owners — a group of four churches in the area — that among other things required the developer to include 20 percent affordable units in each phase of the development, according to neighbors.

Now, residents say Onni has gone back on that promise. Instead, the developer will put 211 of 300 planned affordable units in the lone Atrium Village building that will remain after the redevelopment, a facility that was built in the 1970s but will undergo renovations under Onni’s plan.

Neighbors and Atrium Village representatives filed suit with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, alleging Onni was breaking the covenant. A settlement was reached between the neighbors and the developer in September, said Emily Coffee, a housing rights lawyer who represented neighbors in the case.

Opponents of the project said Onni’s plan to keep most affordable units in the oldest building will keep renters who live in them from having access to the amenities in the three new towers.

“He we are, separating people again,” Plan Commission member Linda Searl said.

David Reifman, commissioner of the Department of Planning and Development, said Onni’s plan is in line with the settlement that was reached. Burnett, whose ward has been the epicenter of new development in the city in recent years, said he was satisfied the required affordable units are being included, especially given the fight around affordability all over the city.

“Personally, I don’t have a problem with an all-affordable building,” Burnett said at the meeting. “We build all-affordable buildings all over the city.

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