Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Ed Burke's Palace: Powerful Chicago alderman gets zoning break, special parking

Ald. Edward M. Burke has ruled the 14th Ward for 40 years. He has used his clout to build himself a palace — right alongside the CTA’s Orange Line near Pulaski.

The house is part of a $4.6 million development that Burke and his partners built on a parking lot over the objections of Mayor Daley’s zoning administrators.

Daley’s zoning staff thought the development — one massive, three story house along with 13 town homes — wasn’t “compatible” with the Archer Heights neighborhood, where it would tower over the surrounding bungalows. But Burke, the city’s most powerful alderman, won permission from his colleagues on the City Council for the project anyway.

Then he got the city Zoning Board of Appeals’ OK to build the 4,400-square-foot house without having to leave space — as required by city ordinance — for a yard in the front or back.

The house does have an enormous rooftop deck, though, giving Burke and his wife, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne M. Burke, a bird’s-eye view of the L trains that rush by all day between the Loop and Midway Airport.

They moved in nearly four years ago.

Burke declined to discuss the project, which couldn’t have been built without City Council approval. Instead, he gave the Chicago SunTimes a copy of a June 24, 2004, letter that he sent to the Chicago Board of Ethics, assuring the city agency that he would abstain from voting on any matters involving the construction of his home and the rest of the project. And he promised he wouldn’t talk to any city officials about the development, either.

According to records obtained by the Sun-Times, Burke teamed with two of his campaign contributors — Anthony DeGrazia, a housing developer, and Eric Gonzales, a contractor whose company has worked on several projects for City Hall. They became equal partners in a new company — 51st Street Townhomes LLC — that paid $300,000 in late June 2004 to buy a little-used parking lot in the 3900 block of West 51st St. They bought it from someone who’d been a client of Burke’s law firm.

The triangular lot, about two- thirds of an acre, was zoned for businesses. Burke and his partners hired a lobbyist — Marcus Nunes, a law partner of Mayor Daley’s former chief of staff, Gery Chico — to get City Hall’s permission to build.

The city’s Zoning Department deemed the project “not recommended.” But the City Council went ahead and approved the project on Sept. 1, 2004 — with Burke abstaining.

On Sept. 10, 2004, Burke and his partners got a $480,000 construction loan from Cole Taylor Bank. They were free to begin building the town homes. But they still couldn’t build Burke’s new home unless the Zoning Board of Appeals agreed to drastically reduce the required size of the front and back yards. If the board wouldn’t agree, there wouldn’t have been enough room to build the house.

“Due to the unique shape of the property, it is impossible to place a home on it and meet the requirements for front, side and rear yard minimums,” according to documents Burke’s group gave the appeals board. “In the absence of such a variation, the property is likely to remain vacant or underutilized.’’

Shortly before Thanksgiving 2004, the appeals board gave Burke what he wanted: His house could be set back just three feet from the lot line, rather than the normal nine feet. And his backyard had to be just three feet deep, rather than the usual 30 feet.

Today, Burke’s home and three car attached garage fills the property. He has no backyard, just a paved driveway around his house. There’s no lawn, just a few flower beds.

Burke and his partners sold the home for $900,000 to the Anne M. Burke Trust on Oct. 10, 2005. The tax bills are mailed to the alderman, who paid $8,551.98 in property taxes last year.

After selling the house to his wife’s trust, Burke and his partners sold the 13 town homes for a total of $3.7 million. One of the biggest went for $280,000 to state Rep. Daniel Burke, the alderman’s brother.

Ald. Burke’s block is one-way, with a traffic barricade. And no one can park on the street without a parking permit. But there are two different permits required — one for the people who live across the street from Burke, another to park on the alderman’s side of the street.

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