Save Wheaton's Seven Gables Historic Landmark from Demolition
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Our issues are these:
#1 - The Pulte subdivision is too dense. Pulte is taking advantage of the convent's zoning class as an institution (I-1), in order to stack homes in tightly. The intention of I-1 zoning is to support institutions (college, hospital, convent), which may have unusual housing needs. Almost all single-family residential areas in Wheaton are R-2 (less dense) and R-3 (denser). R-4 (densest) residential areas are rare in south Wheaton. Pulte would not have been able to build their current, dense plan if it were R-2 or R-3; even under R-4, they would have had to apply for variances for lot coverage and floor area ratio. The Pulte plan is using the land's I-1 status as a loophole so they can develop it more densely (higher lot coverage and floor area ratio) than any other residential zoning would allow. For example, they plan to build homes spaced 11 feet apart; whereas, most homes in R-2 and R-3 areas are spaced at least 25-30 feet apart. Currently, there are no Wheaton subdivisions designated I-1.
Permitting Pulte to manipulate the wording of the I-1 institutional zoning sets an alarming precedent for other properties that are zoned I-1. For example, would the entire Wheaton College campus be allowed to be sold to developers and made into densely packed subdivisions such as this one? And, is this the vision that the Wheaton City Council really has for our town? To be made into such ill-fitting, densely-packed subdivisions?
#2 - The current plan provides only one street, Somerset, to access the tightly-packed subdivision. Pulte claims that traffic flow will be low, suggesting that elderly, retired couples are less likely to drive. However, 48 retired couples who are healthy and fit enough not to live in assisted living communities are likely to be active and interested in filling their days with a multitude of activities. Also, if the homes do not sell, Pulte (or another developer they sell the property to) will likely come back to the City asking to make the homes into larger two-level homes to house larger families. In addition, even if the initial home owners are retired couples, subsequent owners could easily be young families, especially if the homes' values depreciate quickly. And, future owners are likely to build additions. Pulte's predicted traffic flow through Somerset is a gross underestimate.
#3 - Who will buy these and live in them? The ranch-style 2-bedroom homes are on tiny lots and yet will cost upwards of $600k. Their intended market is the retired community. And yet, which retired couple would downsize to a home the same price as (or more than) their current home -- but smaller, in the middle of nowhere, with no easy access to the Metra or downtown Wheaton, and without any sort of community building for activities? If they sell at all, they will sell slowly, one at a time, and construction is likely to stretch on for years and years. The likelihood that the homes do not sell and the razed land, with destruction of the beautiful Seven Gables mansion and its attached chapel, becomes a barren dust land is depressingly high.
#4 - Legacy and Preservation of our Historic Landmark, versus how much Money? We had heard that the Wheaton Park District was willing to offer $5 million to the convent for the land last year, but that amount was not accepted. Pulte's offer this year was reportedly higher, at about $8 million. To add to the confusion, one of the sisters stated at a Planning & Zoning Board meeting that they needed $5 million for their retirement fund. The sisters have worked so hard over the years to find a developer who would save the mansion, and many of them have said they would love an option in which the landmark could be saved. As their vocation, they also have served God over money for all of their lives. Most people depend on their attorneys and financial advisers to guide their financial decisions; could there be mis-guidance on the part of their advisers into making them believe the Pulte plan is their only viable choice? Also, if our values are worth more than money, and $5 million is enough for their retirement fund, then perhaps the convent may accept a plan that is $6 million. It may not be the highest price, but would be one that blesses the town of Wheaton and the surrounding neighborhoods of Seven Gables for a long time after they have gone. Imagine the extra playing fields for children, and the landmark made into a community house for all. If not the WPD, can't we at least ask the developer to modify the plan to save the landmark, and spread out the density of the homes?
#5 - The Seven Gables mansion has been an iconic landmark of the Wheaton landscape since it finished construction around 1897. Its architect, Jarvis Hunt, designed it as a recreation of the mansion in The House of Seven Gables, a novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Seven Gables was a gift from steel magnate Jay C. Morse for his daughter and son-in-law, and resembles Morse's own Moyenage mansion in Bratenahl, Ohio, which remains standing and well-maintained. The mansion has a rich, rich history, and remains in good condition, with beautiful original details throughout, spacious interiors designed for entertaining, and a solid foundation and exterior structure without any major flaw. It could be used as a community center, an event venue, a museum, or a historical society. Seven Gables is considered an endangered historic site by Landmarks Illinois, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving historically significant buildings. Wheaton's identity as a historic, close-knit town is anchored in our respect for our past, as well as our responsibility for making wise plans for our future. Constantly tearing down our historic, beautiful old buildings erodes the identity of our town and turns us into just any generic suburb, one without character. And, if we do not make decisions that are best for Wheaton, our town, both what it is now and also what we hope for it to become, we seriously neglect our responsibility as stewards of Wheaton.
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