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Against all odds: the preservation of North Park Village



This being Chicago, you'd figure that developers would have closed in on the wide open spaces of the tuberculosis sanatorium known as North Park Village as soon as it closed down in 1974. The bulldozers would have followed, plowing over flowers, uprooting trees, and ravaging greenery to make way for ugly high rises, tacky convenience stores, and concrete parking lots.

This tale, however, has a different end. Even though the city owns the property, city officials have resisted the lure of big-bucks developers; they overcame their urge to treat every piece of paved-over grass as economic salvation. And of North Park Village's 155 acres they've now agreed to preserve about 108 as open space.

The city can't soon go back on its word either, because acting mayor Eugene Sawyer signed and the City Council approved a legally binding contract that says the protected land there must remain undeveloped for at least the next 75 years. All in all, it's the most unlikely ending to a land struggle in Chicago: the preservationists--with little cash or political support--won.

"Sometimes I can't believe it turned out so well myself," says Bill Fredrickson, cochairman of the 13-year-old North Park Village Advisory Council, the coalition of city officials, northwest-side residents, and citywide groups (like Open Lands Project, a not-for-profit preservationist organization) that pressed for conservation of both buildings and undeveloped land. "Maybe we were lucky."

"The community won because they persevered," says Ramon Muniz, the outgoing assistant deputy commissioner of the Department of General Services who pushed for the agreement despite opposition from city lawyers. "I'm a Chicago kid. Green grass is something I can appreciate because there wasn't much of it in the neighborhoods I grew up in. This was an instance when the city decided it was more important to preserve our assets than to sell them off. The big payoff will be for future generations."

The sanatorium--whose grounds were bounded on the north and south by Peterson and Bryn Mawr avenues, and on the west and east by Pulaski Road and Central Park Avenue--was built in 1907. Fresh air, healthy food, and clean, uncongested environs were the standard treatment then for tuberculosis, before the advent of such drugs as isoniazid and rifampin. Built and operated with public monies on public land, the sanatorium was a fence-enclosed outpost on the as-yet-undeveloped northwest side, far removed from the filth and congestion of the inner city, through which TB swept at the turn of the century.

"The city grew up and around the sanatorium," says Fredrickson, a retired economics professor from North Park College. "For years it was off-limits, like a sanctuary. I've lived here for 45 years, and I was never in it until it closed."

After the sanatorium closed in 1974, word shot through the nearby community of North Park that developer Harry Chaddick planned to erect a high-rise complex of apartments and retail outlets there.

"Chaddick had the germ of a great idea," says Fredrickson. "The city was losing retail sales to suburban malls, and with it a share of the sales tax. The idea was to develop whatever vacant land we had in the city with suburbanlike malls. That's how we got Ford City and the Brickyard shopping malls. Mayor [Richard J.] Daley was interested [in doing it]. But when we got wind of it, our people went bananas."

The residents worried that traffic from the mall would undercut the value of their property, and also that their neighborhood would lose a treasured landmark. The brick buildings that made up the Village--including two dormitories, a dining hall, a nondenominational chapel, and a theater--are of a classic turn-of-the-century design.

"The reaction was immediate," says Joseph Cicero, executive director of the North River Commission, the largest community organization in the area. "Over the years we have had to organize a few protests. But this protest organized itself."

An ad hoc committee was quickly formed; meetings were held, petitions signed, and within a few months Mayor Daley changed his mind. The plan by residents to save the sanatorium was, the late mayor declared, his plan too. Daley created the North Park Village Advisory Council, filling its ranks with residents and preservationists.

Led by Fredrickson, Rose Wandel, and Jerome Sachs, the council haggled with city officials--as different mayors came and went--for six years. But all along they assumed the city was committed to Daley's vow to preserve the open space. They should have known better.

"From the city's perspective, the big concern has always been money," says Fredrickson. "It currently costs about $2 million a year to maintain this place, though it doesn't generate anything in taxes. This would be the logical place to cut during a budget crisis. It's a battle we have to fight every year."

In 1982, the council got wind of a plan--hatched by the mayor's office--to sell the land for development. Unbeknownst to them, meetings on the proposal had been scheduled by the Plan Commission. "We found out about it because one of our members saw a legal notice on the meeting in one of the papers," says Fredrickson.

Again the community reacted with anger, demanding that Mayor Jane Byrne attend a public hearing on the matter. To her credit, Byrne showed up, facing 1,000 jeering residents from the neighborhood. "The highlight of that meeting was when Byrne got up to speak," Fredrickson says. "This little old lady walked right up to Byrne. It took her a lot of time to get there because she had to use one of those four-prong walkers, and she said: 'Mayor Byrne, we elected you, and we can unelect you too.'"

Byrne backed off any plan to develop the land--and for good reason. The Village sits in the middle of what was Byrne's base of support in the 1983 mayoral election; she couldn't afford to lose votes there. Of course, she lost that election anyway. And suddenly the council had to deal with another administration, headed by a new mayor who--to them--was a virtual stranger.

"I wouldn't have blamed Harold Washington for not caring about us; he didn't get many votes out here," says Cicero. "But Washington was very open to our needs. He had us in for a meeting, and he asked us, 'What can I do for you?'"

Planning and negotiations began anew--only now there was a new set of city officials who had to familiarize themselves with the issues. The Planning Department sponsored a public brainstorming session led by a professional architect. A new plan for the use of the Village emerged. And then--under a reorganization of city government--responsibility for the Village was passed from the Planning Department to General Services. "General Services was created to centralize the city's management of its assets, like the Village," says Muniz. "That's why we took over negotiations with the residents from the Planning Department."

The residents and Open Lands remained determined to preserve as much of the land as possible--which was proving to be a difficult task. Over the years some vacant land in the Village had been lost incrementally to development. Added to the Village were a school built by the Board of Education, a Health Department facility, a 240-unit apartment building for low-income senior citizens, and Peterson Park, a sprawling recreational area complete with softball diamonds and tennis and basketball courts.

None of these projects clashed with the nature walks and open-space preserves, however. The challenge was to block further erosion: the council needed a way to preserve the undeveloped land in perpetuity. In the last few years they settled on a device--a conservation easement--suggested by Open Lands.

"An easement is a way of defining the rights you have to a certain piece of property," explains Tom Hahn, associate director of Open Lands. "For instance, you can have an easement to build a sidewalk across someone else's property. A conservation easement transfers the rights to develop property--to tear down trees, so to speak--from the owner, in this case the city, to a third party [in this case, a subsidiary of Open Lands]."

The city's lawyers opposed the idea of an easement right from the start. It's all well and good that this administration likes green grass, they argued, but what if some future one doesn't? What if 10 or 20 years from now, some mayor wants to build a K mart there? What if he needs that K mart to pump sales-tax dollars into the public schools? Should we forever sign away that right for the sake of a bunch of birds, bugs, and trees?

Muniz and his boss--Kari Moe, commissioner of General Services--persisted. Washington had promised to keep the land open, they argued. It was a vow Sawyer had pledged to continue. In the end, the lawyers backed down, with two major stipulations. The easement would be in place for 75 years--not perpetuity--and a 12.5-acre parcel on the far-southwest corner would be set aside for development. If all goes well, the taxes generated from that land will offset the costs of maintaining the Village's grounds and vacant buildings.

"Some of the people in our group didn't like that compromise," says Fredrickson. "They didn't want to see any of the land developed. But there have been restrictions on the development; they can't put a convenience store in or something like that. So most of us are satisfied."

A number of catch-22's are intentionally built into a conservation easement. "The right to develop the open space has been transferred to Open Lands," says Hahn. "Of course, we have no intention of doing anything with that land, and we couldn't if we wanted to: We don't own it. It's the city's land." As an additional safeguard, Hahn says, "The conservation easement has been written into the deed. If some future mayor tried to turn around and develop the land, we would take him to court."

As for the land's status in 75 years, well, as Muniz says, that's up to the conscience of future politicians. Of course, it's likely the next generation of North Park residents will be watching. In the meantime, the current residents have started to entertain ideas of how to take advantage of what they've saved. (Only a few of the old sanatorium buildings are currently in use.)

"We'd like to see the theater building converted into some kind of community art center," says Fredrickson. "It's a beautiful building; it's a shame that it's closed. The Village has a wonderful director, Lolain Dobbs, who keeps it clean and well tended. We hope she stays." At the very least the programs that already exist--like the city-run nature center, which operates its own apiary and sells fresh honey--will remain.

"We get bus loads of kids all the time who come out here and look at the animals," says Laurel Ross, the naturalist on staff there. "It's so peaceful and quiet here. I wish I had a dollar for all the visitors who say: 'I can't believe I'm in the city.'"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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