The public hearing on the Villa Lewaro special permit application is expected to resume in November. The attorney for the Broadway mansion’s owner agreed to submit a rewritten application that addresses neighbors’ concerns about crowds, noise, traffic, and other disturbances that might result from activities at the site, which will operate as the “Madam CJ Walker Institute for Women Entrepreneurs of Color.”
Noise was a focus of a board work session on Sept. 29, when limiting music at events was discussed. Crowd size was also a focus. The board wanted the applicant to be specific about the maximum numbers of participants and staff at monthly or bi-monthly programs. They were also concerned about parking and traffic during programs with 50 people registered, plus 10 to 12 staff members. The Institute’s attorney, Jennifer Gray, said registrants would be directed to off-site parking, with a jitney bus taking them to the villa.
Another contentious area concerned parameters for large special events, possibly sponsored by outside entities with missions related “to the charitable purpose of the organization.” Gray said it could be something like “a fundraising event... a luncheon, or a gala. It could be a reception celebrating Black-owned businesses.” The trustees discussed whether they should require a separate special permit for events on a larger scale than a typical seminar that would have at most, 50 guests plus staff.
Village Attorney Marianne Stecich told Gray, “I think the board has to fix a cap.” For events within that cap, Village Administrator Larry Schopfer suggested the details would need to be discussed with his office. He asked the applicant to be more specific about describing the scale and nature of large special events, such as receptions or galas.
The scale of events described in the original draft of the special permit application was larger than owner and Institute founder Richelieu Dennis shared with the board after he bought the villa in 2018. During a board meeting on Dec. 17, 2018, he described events such as “small classes of women that have graduated through these programs, to come in and spend an afternoon with each other... doing peer-to-peer learning,” and gatherings where “10 to 12 graduates of the program would meet to talk about their challenges and successes.”
In July 2021, Dennis allowed a show by Black couture designer Kerby Jean-Raymond, founder of the label Pyer Moss, to be held at the mansion. The fashion company acquired a filming permit from the Village because the show would be streamed online. But instead of the few dozen people estimated in the permit, there were hundreds.
In the wake of the fashion show, the Institute submitted its special permit application, which contemplated one to five special events for up to 400 people. With the memory of the fashion show fresh in their minds, some neighbors balked at the application.
During the village board meeting on Oct. 4, Mayor Brian Smith said, “We’ve had two public hearings so far, and a work session, to bluntly share the feedback we’ve received with the applicant. They haven’t come back with a new proposal.” He said the public hearing would continue on Monday, Nov. 1. Meanwhile, residents could continue to send written comments to the board, or speak during the public comment period at the next board meeting, on Oct. 18.
On Oct. 4, Villa Lewaro’s adjacent neighbor, Judd Harchar, called into the meeting after submitting a detailed written account of how, during the fashion show, the mansion’s carriage house was used to hold a reception, with garbage receptacles on its back deck and a bar and DJ booth in front. He requested that the board make it a condition of the special permit that the carriage house not be used for such purposes.
Josipa Rancic of Fargo Lane, which runs alongside Villa Lewaro, called in to state there should be a detailed environmental impact study required, including traffic, noise, and accessibility to first responders. “The municipality has the authority to ask the applicant to pay for all these consultants to review the full impact of the project proposal,” Rancic said. “Once we have all these studies we could look at the specific uses and see how to mitigate these uses.”
Another Irvington landmark, the Octagon House, was referred to by resident Jessie Quinn as a model example of a landmark property that had received a special permit for tours, with limitations on attendance and traffic.
Smith said that he didn’t think indoor events once or twice a month “would be that disruptive,” and he pointed out that a permit could be issued for a smaller upper limit of attendees to begin with. If there are problems, “Special permits are renewable,” he reminded Quinn. “I’ve been to some pretty big parties at that house, and there haven’t been complaints, but it was inside. To me, there’s something that can work here, and that’s what we have to try to figure out.”
Glen Kashin of North Broadway called to state that “I agree with some of your points, Brian, but the attorneys for Villa Lewaro can promise anything in the world. But they don’t have control of the elements they’re proposing. I think as this unfolds the neighbors are going to see this as a regular occurrence, not as an anomaly.” Kashin also said that the application shouldn’t be viewed in the context of the institute’s history and mission, but as “a request for a conference center in a private home.”