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D’Amato On Development: “Reknitting the Urban Fabric”

by Sonya Jongsma Knauss / photos by Tess Reiss

Third District Alderman Mike D’Amato knows there are people who think he’s out to develop every piece of land in his district. That’s partly a result of his hands-on approach with developers. When someone approaches him with a project proposal, he tries to guide the process to make sure the development will be appropriate for its surroundings and meet city requirements. He says he wants to encourage development that is “aesthetically correct and high quality.” “Does that mean I’m a ‘friend of developers?’ When someone is already developing something, and we intervene to make it better for the neighborhood, that’s a good thing,” he says. “I don’t support tearing down the fabric of the neighborhood; I do support infill developments that are appropriate.” D’Amato, a supporter of New Urbanism-style city planning, notes that problems can result if developers build without neighborhood or city input. On a driving tour of his district, he points out buildings, both good and bad, that have gone up under his tenure as alderman. Looking at a house on Warren Street with huge garage doors facing the street on the first floor, he says, “Buildings like this detract from the value of the neighborhood.” D’Amato keeps coming back to aesthetics when he talks about development. Features such as size and scale of windows, type of landscaping and exterior materials, placement of front doors and garage doors — all play into whether he considers something appropriate for its surroundings. In the middle of neighborhoods, he supports size-appropriate townhouses, condos, single family, or duplex housing stock. On streets like Farwell, he supports high rises with first floor commercial areas. It all depends on the character of the area. “Most of the stuff that I’ve supported is reknitting the urban fabric,” he explains. “If we’re going to be against urban sprawl, we need to repopulate our urban neighborhoods… and recapturing some of the tax base we’ve lost in the last decade is good for everyone.” Riverwest alone lost 10.6 % of its population between 1990 and 2000, according to the most recent Census information, and three percent of its housing stock.

Gordon Knoll Condos

The most recent Riverwest development D’Amato has been involved with is that of a four-story condo going up near Whitnall Knoll on Locust Street just west of the River. One near neighbor is furious about it. Others describe themselves as “pretty much resigned to it” and also mention the upside: increased privacy because of the large buffer between their homes and Locust Street. D’Amato walks through the timeline of the project to explain how the condos came to be built. “I was approached by Todd Hutchison (of ABC Development) in 2000 because he wanted to develop some townhouses on the property,” D’Amato said. The land had been owned by real estate giant Towne Realty. Hutchison had a plan to put in 12 single family homes and townhouses. He was asking for block grant funding to help underwrite the development since it was a small-scale project and he wanted the houses to be affordable. D’Amato liked the plan and agreed to set up a meeting with neighbors to try to start the ball rolling on a $330,000 block grant. But according to D’Amato, some neighbors objected to development on the privately-owned greenspace. He says he cautioned them that the zoning allowed a much bigger development. According to near neighbors Denise Mitchell and Whitnall Knoll block captain Karen Brost, the main concern about the townhouse plan was that a cul-de-sac would be opened up as part of the proposed plan. “Nobody wanted to open Gordon Place — it would be like a thoroughfare through here,” Brost said. Both women said that after the first meeting, they didn’t hear anything about the project until another meeting was called about a proposed six-story condo project. They weren’t quite sure what had happened to the townhouse plan. “We’re very unhappy about the scale of this project,” Mitchell said referring to the condos. “I don’t know how the [townhouses plan] got derailed.” According to D’Amato, the plan was derailed when a couple neighbors wrote letters to the block grant administration opposing ABC Development’s proposal. When the grant was denied Hutchison no longer was interested in purchasing the property. It was soon sold to someone else. The new owner, Brendan Sullivan, proposed a six-story condo project for the property. Sullivan, who did not return calls asking for comment, scaled his plan back to four stories after a meeting with neighbors and D’Amato. Construction is now well underway. Brost summed up neighbors’ main concerns about the new project: “We didn’t want Gordon Place open because we wanted to stay somewhat isolated here…. and we were concerned about how it would affect our water and sewer.” The concerns were dealt with, says Brost, and Ald. D’Amato worked with developers to ensure that a gate would block any foot traffic from Locust Street into the quiet Whitnall Knoll neighborhood. While she misses looking out her kitchen window to see deer in the clearing — and dislikes that her front porch looks right into condominium windows across the street — Brost says the current plan is satisfactory to her and most neighbors. “Everything was done the way it should be,” she says, referring to the process and the neighborhood meetings. “Something would have been built there no matter what… I don’t think [D’Amato] could have handled it any better.” D’Amato knows neighborhood input is key on potentially controversial developments. “People can disagree with me, but they can’t say I don’t offer an opportunity for input.” This article is the first in a series that will look at development issues in Riverwest and surrounding areas. Next month’s articles will include a look at East Side development, including a review of projects that sparked East Siders’ frustration, and an exclusive interview with East Side resident and New Land Enterprises owner Boris Gokhman. Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 8 – August 2003