Developer gets expansion OK for small house on narrow lot

Wilmette architect and developer Morton Balaban, shown here in a 2006 file photo, finally won approval from the village board for his plans to enlarge a one-story Central Park Avenue home, despite concerns about the narrow size of the lot it sits on. | Fi
Wilmette architect and developer Morton Balaban, shown here in a 2006 file photo, finally won approval from the village board for his plans to enlarge a one-story Central Park Avenue home, despite concerns about the narrow size of the lot it sits on. | Fi

Second time was the charm when Wilmette trustees approved Wilmette architect Morton Balaban’s request for permission to enlarge a Central Park Avenue house, but not before their lengthy discussion of the case prompted an exasperated Trustee Ted McKenna to declare “I don’t understand why we spent an hour and a half on this.”

Trustees decided in a 6-1 vote to approve zoning relief that will allow Balaban to turn a narrow two-bedroom single-story home at 116 Central Park Ave., into a two-story, three-bedroom house with a front porch.

But the debate that frustrated McKenna at one point had Village President Bob Bielinski chastising Balaban for not preparing his case carefully, saying “This is not your first rodeo. This the kind of case where every ‘t’ should be crossed, every ‘i’ should be dotted, everything should be perfect … yet you showed up half prepared.”

At another point, it had Trustee Mike Basil telling the architect-developer that he was building “10 pounds of house on a five pound lot.”

A pugnacious Balaban in turn told board members that their suggested design amendments to his plan wouldn’t work, that even adjustments he could make were aesthetically unpleasing and that he had the right to build a house that was the maximum size allowed by ordinance.

“If the code allows me this many square feet, why do you say ‘No, build less’?” he asked.

“The issue is that you’re proposing something that’s impractical to maintain, whether or not you have a right to do it,” responded Trustee Alan Swanson.

Earlier this year, Balaban originally asked for zoning relief from multiple set-back minimums and floor area ratios, and presented a design that added a full second story, doubled the home’s two bedrooms to four and added a wide front porch.

The plan had already received a thumbs down from the village’s zoning board of appeals when it first came before the board on May 27. At the time, Trustee Cameron Krueger called it “one of the hairier cases we’ve had.” At least one problem, trustees worried, was a design that brought the house walls only inches from homes on either side.

The board eventually told Balaban there were too many unanswered questions on porch size and front and side yard setbacks for them to make a decision, and sent the case back to the ZBA.

Since that time, Balaban told trustees, he has made significant changes to his plan. He cut the number of bedrooms from four to three, and made the porch smaller, eliminating the need for zoning relief from floor area ratio rules. But when ZBA members re-examined the amended case, they were still unhappy with it, and again sent it to the board with a negative recommendation.

Two neighbors spoke against Balaban’s plan. Chris Bischoff, of 114 Central Park Ave., said, “the practical reality is that this is a developer that made a purchase, and wants to achieve a certain return.

“It’s a starter house,” he said. “Small houses serve an important function, for smaller families, for divorced parents, for empty nesters.”

As he did in May, Balaban argued that the narrowness of the Central Park lot – 25 feet wide rather than the village average of 50, and more similar to lots in Chicago – cut his architectural options as he enlarges the existing house.

His design, which featured extended eaves on the porch and second floor netted kudos from Basil, who said the style was compatible with other homes in Wilmette. The problem was that the style didn’t work on the tiny lot, Basil said.

Trustees repeatedly asked why he could not narrow the eaves to help prevent the potential of actually encroaching on neighbors’ lots, and Balaban acknowledged that he would be willing to do so, to eliminate another of his variation requests.

Once he agreed to cut the size of the eaves back, trustees, approved his zoning request. Basil was the lone exception.

SIZE MATTERS

WHAT: House expansion

WHERE: 116 Central Park Ave.

CONCERN: narrow lot

DECISION: Village approval

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