By LINDSAY WELBERS
The developer who proposed to buy and rehabilitate two decaying South Kenwood Frank Lloyd Wright homes was surprised last week when Ald. Will Burns (4th) killed the plan at the first meeting.
Tawani Enterprises had plans to buy the two adjacent houses, which are currently listed at $1.175 million and $1.15 million and in need of heavy repairs, to rehabilitate them and open a bed-and-breakfast.
Tawani, which is headed by billionaire Jennifer Pritzker, sought neighborhood approval to run a bed- and-breakfast out of the two homes at a Fourth Ward community meeting on Monday, Nov. 18, at St. Paul and the Redeemer Episcopal Church, 4945 S. Dorchester Ave. Kenwood residents vocally opposed allowing an economic enterprise to open on the largely residential block.
“We understand that people in the neighborhood would like to keep all these single-family homes and mansions just as they were built, but the challenge is that the times have changed,” Sean McGowan, chief operating officer at Tawani, said. “The maintenance and upkeep to keep these older, precious homes tends to be too much of a financial burden on an individual. We can go in, we can restore these houses to their original grandeur and repurpose them as B&Bs … and bring in the cash flow to help restore everything we put into them.”
Neighbors at Monday night’s meeting vehemently opposed a commercial enterprise opening on the residential street.
“I bought in this neighborhood because I wanted to live in a single-family neighborhood,” said Dr. Anita Blanchard. “It will bring transients into our neighborhood, people who are just here for a few days right across the street from a park and a school.”
Blanchard was named by President Barack Obama to the Committee for Preservation of the White House on Thursday, an advisory committee charged with preserving the presidential mansion in Washington, D.C.
“This comment that we need outsiders to come and renovate Hyde Park is nonsense,” said Dr. Ian Smith. “We just sold a $3 million-plus house over on Greenwood, so there’s enough money in Chicago coming into the area to renovate these houses to live in them as single family homes.”
The Blossom and McArthur houses, at 4850 and 4852 S. Kenwood Ave., have been languishing on the real estate market since October, 2012. Wright designed both homes while he was still employed with Adler and Sullivan; they are considered his “bootleg” homes.
“We understand people are concerned about commercial use and we’re trying to do the lowest impact commercial use,” McGowan said.
Tawani planned to request a zoning change from RS-1, a low level residential zoning, to RT-4 the lowest level zoning that allows for a B&B. The zoning would be returned to residential once a business license is issued, grandfathering in Tawani’s license, while creating a hurdle should another buyer would come along in the future.
Andrew Scott, the zoning attorney for Tawani, said the deal would have included a restrictive covenant agreement on both properties. The covenant would have prohibited conversion to condos in the future, ensuring each home could only be used as a single family home or B&B with only one resident in each coach house. To give the covenant teeth, any property owner within 1,000 feet of either property would have enforcement rights in case another owner in the future would attempt to violate that covenant.
“If the University of Chicago was not here, Frank Lloyd Wright would be your biggest asset because you have his most famous prairie house nine blocks away. People would come here to see Frank Lloyd Wright,” said Celeste M. Adams, CEO of the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust. “You want to show people we’re proud of this asset and we’re keeping it well. The team that is offering to develop this are top-quality people. These are people in the nonprofit world and they have done this all of their lives because they believe in it.”
Jean Snyder, who lives on the 4800 block of South Kenwood Avenue, spoke in favor of the proposal, she said, because she’s practical.
“I hear folks saying that somebody can come in and spend the money and renovate these places but I don’t think that’s realistic. I don’t think they could be renovated to be what they are, which is these wonderful Frank Lloyd Wright places. I haven’t seen anybody other than the Pritzkers making an offer for them,” Snyder said. “I really hope we’ll find a way to make this happen.”
Snyder was one of the few voices in support of the proposal at the meeting, where at least 70 people attended. As the discussion drew to a close, Burns said, “I’m not going to move a project forward that doesn’t have the support of the community, and I don’t sense a critical mass of folks in Kenwood that want to move this project forward. I got the message. We’re not moving forward.”
Tawani has rescinded its bid on the properties but would be willing to reconsider if there was a groundswell of support from the neighborhood, McGowan said.
“During the time we were looking at this [property] the whole porch on the south façade did fall off. That will all be restored,” said Gunny Harboe, the architect who spoke on the restoration plans for the Blossom House, 4850 S. Kenwood Ave.
“We were disappointed and surprised Alderman (Burns) made such a quick decision not move forward with the zoning change especially because there appears to be many people in the Kenwood neighborhood in favor of the project. Unfortunately at this point there is nothing more we can do other than to respect the alderman’s decision. We hope that someone will come along to restore and preserve the homes in the manner which they deserve and which is respectful to the legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright,” Tawani said in a statement.