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CHICAGO-An attempt to create a scattered-site landmark district near the already historically-designated Washington Square area on the Near North Side has raised questions whether the tool used to preserve notable buildings is a back-handed attempt to circumvent zoning.

Homes on the first block of W. Chestnut Street as well as three blocks on N. Dearborn St. would covered by the designation despite opposition from the majority of the owners, who fear the restrictions and higher costs involved in improving their properties. It also would limit future uses to what is already there—primarily some of the most expensive row houses in the entire market.

Landmark designation also would take the 33 properties off the boards for future redevelopment, even though zoning in an area that has seen high-rise condominium towers built already limits most new construction to no more than 45 feet in height.

However, it also would have taken two parcels, including one just north of the Lawson YMCA on Division Street, off the boards even though they are vacant lots. That raised the ire of more than one alderman on the city council’s committee on historical landmark preservation questions.

“What criteria does it meet?” asks 50th Ward Alderman Bernard Stone, noting a vacant lot cannot have architectural significance, and the parcel in the 1200 block of N. Dearborn is not contiguous to another historical structure.

The Washington Square District Extension has been advanced by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks as well as the city’s department of planning and development. It also has the support of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois.

“They’re trying to substitute landmarking for zoning,” says Alderman Burt Natarus, whose 42nd Ward includes the Washington Square District Extension.

Although he asked for six more months to work out differences with property owners, Natarus’ substitute ordinance, which eliminated the two vacant lots from the list, passed the committee 5-1 with 49th Ward Alderman Joe Moore voting against the measure.

“It would be hard to project what future owners would do with their properties,” says landmarks commission secretary John W. Baird, noting the collection of properties in the proposed district include some of the “largest and finest” collection of homes dating back to the days immediately following the Great Chicago Fire. “Zoning can’t ensure protection of their features.”

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