According to a recent opinion piece, we in Lake Bluff are supposed to embrace change because it is “healthy” to do so. I think the piece was in response to another opinion piece about proposed zoning changes in Lake Bluff, but I’m not sure because it spent a lot of time discussing things that don’t have anything to do with proposed zoning changes in the R-5 district. Of course, I think that was the point: obfuscate the issue with generalized statements about how great Lake Bluff is now compared to the “sleepy, often overlooked and undervalued town” it once was.
The piece also lamented that residents who often complain about change in Lake Bluff often have not lived here for decades and as such have a limited frame of reference for judging how Lake Bluff has changed for the better. As a long-time resident of Lake Bluff, and a third-generation resident at that, I will pick up the gauntlet that was thrown down and voice my concerns about how Lake Bluff has changed over the years.
However, before I comment on change, I want to raise an initial and important point. It is offensive for anyone to suggest or even imply that residents who have not lived here for decades should stay quiet regarding changes to Lake Bluff. This is especially troubling when the person making such a suggestion/implication sits on a village government advisory board (the Residential Building Ad Hoc Committee to be precise) and was appointed to that position by the village president. Each and every resident of Lake Bluff, regardless of their tenure, has the right to speak out on any subject regarding village governance. Citizens should not be silenced simply because they haven’t been around for the last 60, 40 or 30 years. And how exactly does that attitude square with our strategic plan goal to be more open and welcoming? It does not. Suppressing citizens’ voices has no place in our village discourse and it is unconscionable for a member of a government advisory board to suggest that it does.
Several other themes raised in that recent opinion piece admonishing Lake Bluff to “embrace change” deserve to be debunked.
Embrace change or stay quiet: The idea that all the changes Lake Bluff has experienced are good and those who think otherwise should stay quiet is also offensive. Change agents often use tired old sayings like “Change is inevitable” or “Change or die” or “Embracing change is healthy.” My personal favorite, “Why are you so afraid of change?” is often used to make light of concerns others may have. Of course, these same agents of change rarely reveal exactly why they are in favor of change – usually they have a financial stake in said changes – they just belittle the people questioning the change. However, there are occasions when the people opposing the change – in this case zoning in the R-5 district of Lake Bluff – band together and become a powerful, unified voice in opposition. The “No 3 on 3” coalition is a good example of what like-minded people can do to prevent ill-conceived changes from happening.
All change is positive/good: This is demonstrably false. Many recent changes that have come to Lake Bluff have been positive, that is true. I think many of us enjoy being able to buy a beer or bottle of wine uptown. However, there have been changes that have had negative, albeit unintended, consequences. Take the Target development, for example. Certainly no one on the village board intended for there to be an increase in crime associated with the Target, yet there has been. All you have to do is read the police blotter to know that the Lake Bluff police are responding to incidents at Target on a weekly basis. These incidents include retail theft, identity theft and credit card fraud. If you take the time to talk to some of our police officers, they will tell you that big box stores always bring this kind of criminal activity. As one officer said to me, “box stores are magnets for criminals.”
Central business district of today vs yesteryear: Contrary to the assertion in the “Embrace Change” piece that “we also had no reason for people to park here,” Lake Bluff once had a vibrant central business district that was populated by more than a laundromat, dime store and meat market. Lake Bluff had an A&P grocery, a hardware store (that I went to every Saturday morning with my father), a barber shop, a men’s clothing store, Mr. White’s variety store, a pharmacy, an antique store, the Village Market (more than just a meat market – it had all the basics and more), the Village Hut, a travel agency, a post office, a gas station (at the corner of Sheridan Road and Scranton), a freestanding realty office and a bank. In other words, Lake Bluff was self-contained and provided its residents with their basic needs all in one tiny business district. Sadly, those days are gone. Now you can’t even buy a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk uptown.
Is it great that we have a brewery, coffee shops and a few restaurants? Certainly. It adds vibrancy to the village that was surely lacking in previous decades. But let’s not confuse the issue here. To say that many of our current residents wouldn’t have come here if we didn’t have a brewery or restaurants is a pretty shallow assertion. It implies that people move here to be entertained when in fact they move here for excellent schools, relative safety, the services Lake Bluff provides its residents, and a family-oriented community.
Current housing stock vs yesteryear: My grandparents lived here from 1939 to 1948. They bought an affordable house on Vincent Court, immediately adjacent to what was then East School (now a sad looking vacant lot). In that little house, they raised three children, my mother being the oldest. My parents moved to Lake Bluff in 1971. They found a house they could afford ($42,000!) in a perfect location, walking distance to East School, the train, uptown and Artesian Park.
Do these affordable homes still exist on the east side of Lake Bluff? Not so much. In many cases, small starter homes have been torn down and replaced by ubiquitous behemoths that start at $1.2 million. Unfortunately, this phenomenon has come to the North Terrace, with a 3,200-square-foot house being built where an 1,100 square foot house once stood. It is completely out of character with the rest of the houses on the block, but hey, that’s change and we should embrace it.
Why does affordable housing stock matter? Because it is what attracts young families with children to our village, in the same way my grandparents and parents were attracted. Contrary to popular belief, not everyone who moves to Lake Bluff is a millionaire or can afford a million dollar mortgage. Realtors and developers may champion tearing down these small bungalows and putting up giant homes or expensive townhomes in their place under the guise of “this is what the market desires,” but that too is demonstrably false. If the market desires all these million dollar homes then why are so many of them still on the market? For example, 420 Evanston is a $1.2 million home that has been on Zillow for 500+ days, and 217 E. Washington, a $1.1 million home, has spent 230 days on Zillow. In fact, last summer Crain’s ran an article about stale home sales and Lake Bluff topped its list of “suburbs with the largest share of homes that have been on the market for six months or more.”
Zoning: The writer who encourages us to embrace change also stated, “A recent contributor wrote about concerns to his home’s value if changes to our antiquated zoning code take place. Our zoning code needs to be adjusted over time to allow for proper changes that will in fact, enhance the value of all property in the community and allow for continued enhancements that will be attractive, desirable and much needed in the future.” That assertion is based on a number of false premises.
First, and foremost, residents expect the village to maintain their home values through intelligent zoning ordinances that do not kowtow to developers and realtors. The proposed zoning changes in R-5 are intended to allow for developments in and around the central business district that will increase the density in the district and eliminate small, single family homes in favor of multi-family housing. For example, a proposed development at 15 E. Washington will replace a 1920s bungalow with a massive, to-the-lot-line, multi-family project (the “Embrace Change” author just happens to be the listing agent). Is the home owner immediately to the east supposed to embrace the changes this development will bring, like increased flooding and lack of sunlight? Yes, because “Change is good. Change is healthy.” In other words, change is coming so suck it up.
Second, proponents of multi-family housing argue that changes to the zoning code will provide much needed housing for seniors and empty-nesters but these same proponents fail to explain why ranches, bungalows and other existing housing stock are not acceptable for that same purpose. Rather than changing the rules for a well-established part of Lake Bluff, the village needs to provide evidence this kind of change is actually needed.
Finally, before the village makes sweeping changes to its zoning code, it needs to consider the reality of the market demand for multi-family housing in Lake Bluff at a time when the market is being flooded by the identical type of housing stock in Lake Forest, Highland Park, Winnetka and Wilmette. These projects are well-under way or completed in some cases, and, in every case, they are situated in or near central business districts where residents can walk to buy necessities like a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk, which makes them especially appealing.
If the village is so hot to develop multi-family housing there is another option that would accomplish multiple goals. Selling the golf course and developing part of it as multi-family housing similar to Armour Woods would accomplish two goals – alleviate the burden of a failing golf course that is propped up by tax payers, and provide attractive housing to seniors and empty-nesters.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but before anyone criticizes those who are questioning changes to Lake Bluff’s zoning code, they might want to come clean about why they are so gung-ho about those changes and what if any financial stake they have in seeing those changes come to fruition.
Editor’s note: Letters to the Editor represent the writers’ opinions and not necessarily those of Daily North Shore. We encourage readers to post Letters to the Editor — please use this link to do so.