On Feb. 7, the village of Oak Park’s Zoning Board of Appeals voted not to recommend approval of a zoning variance to allow a landmark corner property at 500 Linden Ave. to be subdivided.
Raj and Dhanalakshmi Ganesan purchased the Tallmadge and Watson-designed home on the northeast corner of Chicago Avenue in 2005 for $1,370,000. In December, they submitted an application for a zoning variance for the property, stating their desire to subdivide their approximately 18,377-square-foot lot into two lots: one of 10,150 square feet containing the existing house and another of 8,228 square feet, on which they would build a new house.
In 2006, they sought and received local landmark status for the circa-1919 property, which is located in the Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie School of Architecture Historic District. In April of 2010, they listed the property for sale for $1,599,000 but deactivated the listing three months later. The home has been listed for rent for over 100 days for $5,500 a month.
On Feb. 7 meeting, Raj Ganesan stated that he and his wife sought the zoning variance due to financial hardship. A realtor advised them that their house had an estimated market value of $1,150,000, almost 20 percent less than their purchase price.
Property taxes on the property rose from roughly $20,000 to $36,000 since 2005. Their realtor also advised them that in 2017 the area saw 87 homes list at $1,000,000 or higher and only four of those listing sold. Ganesan requested the variance, citing the declining value of his home, rising property taxes and the 2018 changes to the state and local tax deductions in federal tax law.
Ganesan and his architect, James Collins, stated that the Ganesans’ intention was to build a new house between the original house and Chicago Avenue. As they stated, the original house would still retain a market value between $900,000 and $1,100,000 while a newly constructed home on the smaller lot could fetch approximately $900,000 when listed for sale.
Michael Bruce, Oak Park’s zoning administrator, said a zoning variance was required because the minimum lot area requirement is 10,000 square feet in that particular district, bounded roughly by Lake Street, Thomas Avenue, Grove Avenue and Fair Oaks Avenue.
Bruce said such variance requests are fairly rare, but admitted that the pressure for owners to try to find ways to get more from their property is becoming more prevalent.
Reversing a trend?
In a letter to the Zoning Board of Appeals, the Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission stated unanimous opposition to the proposed subdivision of 500 Linden Ave.
Preservation Commission Chairman Chris Payne noted that there has been a trend in recent years to demolish smaller ranch homes that destroy the grand appearance of estate homes fronting Chicago Avenue, pointing to the demolition of two homes on the north side of Chicago at Euclid Avenue. Payne expressed concern that allowing the subdivision would set a precedent that would go against that positive trend.
Another concern was that the ornamental brick and iron fence that surrounds the entire property would be destroyed and the decorative front entrance of the home would be obscured by the addition of a new house.
“These are some of the main things that make this house historic,” Payne stated. “They are part of what makes this building a landmark.”
In addition, preservation commissioners worried about the overall effect of building a new home between the existing home and Chicago Avenue.
“From the side street, the home is now seen as a large estate,” Payne stated. “You’d be shoe-horning it into a smaller property and making it more urban and more dense than what is the norm in that neighborhood.”
During his tenure on the preservation commission, Payne says he cannot recall another instance of a property in a historic district applying for a variance to subdivide. He says aspects of 500 Linden Ave. demanded a closer look.
“It’s a pretty unique circumstance with the front of the home on Chicago Avenue,” he said. “It’s not like we can regulate what they can put up if they build a new house there.“
Seven neighbors spoke in opposition to the application. While all were sympathetic to the rising tax burden faced by the Ganesans, all voiced concern that the historic character of the home and neighborhood would be negatively impacted by a subdivision of the property.
John Biek, who lives directly across Chicago Avenue from the Ganesan house, says that he and his wife, Tina Norton, were opposed to the subdivision of the property, but not without some misgivings. Calling the Ganesans great people, he said his concerns are based solely on the architectural integrity and character of the streetscape.
“In terms of architectural character and feeling for the neighborhood, it is in jeopardy if the Zoning Board of Appeals grants these variances,” Biek said.
Calling attention to the wider frontages and deep setbacks, with larger distances between homes in the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District, Biek says that the neighborhood is a little less dense than other areas.
“Putting an infill house on Chicago would be totally out of character,” he said.
Biek echoed Payne’s concerns about reversing the trend on Chicago Avenue of removing infill houses and restoring the neighborhood to what it was historically. Biek also agreed that it would go against the home’s landmark status to cover up the Tallmadge and Watson-designed exterior with a new home.
Members of the Zoning Board of Appeals, after a few minutes of discussion, unanimously agreed that issues of tax hardship and housing market swings were not valid reasons to grant a variance from the zoning ordinance.