In September the trucks started rumbling down the tree-lined side streets of Old Irving Park to dump their asphalt in the abandoned railroad yards near Kolmar and Berteau.
Within a few days word rang through this quiet northwest-side residential neighborhood that Palumbo Brothers, Inc., a large and well-established construction company, was going to build an asphalt-recycling facility there. "One of the men from Palumbo told us, 'You guys are in big trouble because this guy [Palumbo] gets what he wants,'" says Kim Nielsen, who lives near the railroad yards. "He said, 'If it were my neighborhood, I would move out.' Our own alderman, Pat Levar, told us that there was no way we could beat this. As far as we knew, this was a done deal."
Since then a few city officials have tried to assure residents that Levar and Palumbo's employee had it wrong--the deal is far from done. They aren't even sure whether Palumbo intends to build a recycling facility or an asphalt-manufacturing plant. It's uncertain even if the city--which has ordered Palumbo to stop the dumping--will OK whatever plans the company proposes. "There's nothing done about this deal--it's in the early stages," says Henry Henderson, commissioner of the city's Environment Department. "I still haven't seen Palumbo's plans." (Neither Peter Palumbo, the head of Palumbo Brothers, nor his lawyer, Daniel Houlihan, would return phone calls.)
Despite Henderson's reassurance, most residents still have their doubts. "I don't trust what the city says at all," says Nielsen. "They have either misinformed us or kept valuable information from us. We're not paranoid, we're not confused--we were misled. And it will be a long time before any of us trust the city again."
The site at Berteau and Kolmar is part of an old industrial corridor just west of the Kennedy Expressway. In the last few years several of the companies around there moved to the suburbs, and the surrounding residential neighborhood has flourished. "This neighborhood is one of the most stable in the city, and we work hard to keep it that way," says Linda Pudlo, a longtime resident of the area. "In fact, just this year the Park District agreed to spend $45,000 to fix up the park on Kolmar and Berteau. We had heard rumors about the plant. But we figured no way would the city be stupid enough to put an asphalt plant in a residential neighborhood across the street from a park."
Then in September the trucks came. "Would you want your kid to be playing across the street from all these trucks bringing in asphalt? It would certainly scare me," says Clara Williams, another area resident. "I can only imagine how much noise, dirt, and stinky fumes it would cause."
Within two days of the dumping, Nielsen sent letters of protest by certified mail to Peter Palumbo, Mayor Daley, and Levar. "We are aware that Palumbo has contracts with the city of Chicago, but we are appealing to you to keep this company out of our residential area," she wrote to Daley. "There must be another location in which this plant can be built other than across the street from a children's play lot."
Daley, Palumbo, and Levar did not respond, but Nielsen was undeterred. On September 21 she sent letters to Sy Levine and Donald Sutton of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency; Henry Henderson; Valerie Jarrett, commissioner of the city's Department of Planning and Development; and Graham Grady, administrator of the city's Zoning Department. "I am the mother of two children, eight years and five years old," Nielsen's second round of letters began. "Our interest in this issue is critical to this neighborhood's physical and emotional well-being."
In early October Nielsen got her first written response--a letter from Grady of the Zoning Department. "Our preliminary review of the zoning for the subject location indicates that such a proposal may only be processed as a planned development, due to the size and proximity of the project to a residential zoning district," Grady wrote. "Therefore, please direct your concerns directly to the Department of Planning and Development, which is the agency of the city of Chicago that handles such planned development applications."
Now Nielsen and her neighbors were perplexed as well as worried. What planned development was Grady talking about? As far as they knew, Palumbo had not yet officially revealed its plans. "We had to ask ourselves: did the city know something they were keeping from us?" says Nielsen. "Was there some sort of giant conspiracy going on? We knew nothing because the city wasn't telling us anything."
Following up on Grady's recommendation, Nielsen called the Planning Department and asked to speak to Jarrett. "I never got through to her--you can never get through to any of these big shots in the Daley administration," says Nielsen. "I called for two days in a row and no one returned my calls. Finally, I took out my frustration on some poor receptionist, and she got one of Jarrett's assistants to call me back. Well, guess what? He had never heard about the project. It was total chaos. Zoning tells me to go to Planning, and Planning doesn't know what the hell is going on. I had to fax him a copy of Grady's letter. After he got my fax, he was really nervous. He kept saying, 'Don't let anyone know you're talking to me.' That really made me think we were on to something big."
Then on October 7 the residents were socked with another bombshell when they noticed a legal advertisement buried in the back pages of the Sun-Times. The ad announced a public City Council hearing on a proposed ordinance that would "permit the use of a lot for a reprocessable construction material facility that would otherwise be prohibited because it is within 300 feet of a residential zoning district." "When we saw that notice we thought they were trying to slip something past us," says Pudlo. "We thought the city was trying to adopt a new citywide ordinance to enable Palumbo to operate a facility that would reprocess, and I'm reading from the ad, 'broken concrete, bricks, rocks, stone, or paving asphalt generated from construction or demolition activities.' It sounded awful."
In reality, city officials say, the zoning ordinance was not directly related to Palumbo's plans. "The zoning amendment was a companion to a regulatory ordinance intended to regulate construction-debris recycling facilities," says Alderman Edwin Eisendrath, chairman of the council's environmental-protection committee. "These facilities are a big problem. There are some lots where the debris is piled six stories high. The regulatory ordinance was our attempt to govern these facilities by requiring them to have a metal crusher on site, to measure how much material they take in and out, to limit hours of operation, and to hold them accountable to noise standards. The zoning amendment was necessary because you can't allow these facilities without creating an appropriate zoning use." (Both amendments have stalled in the council after some aldermen complained the measures would encourage illegal dumping in poor wards--a charge Eisendrath denies.)
The residents of Old Irving Park were only able to sort out the particulars of the amendments after countless conversations over the course of several days with aldermen, aldermanic aides, city officials, and reporters. "No one really took the time to sit us down and explain the whole situation," says Nielsen. "We learned things piece by piece. It was always a situation where we discovered one thing and then someone says, 'Oh that, well, that's no big deal.' Well, if it's no big deal, how come you didn't tell us about it in the first place? Then we would discover something else that was, you know, 'no big deal.'"
The matter is made even more confusing because it's not absolutely clear which ward the railroad yard is in. According to the current ward map, which the City Council adopted last year, it's in Alderman Tom Cullerton's 38th Ward; according to the old ward map, it's in the 45th Ward. "I'm not taking a stand on this because it's not in my ward," says Levar. "It's in Cullerton's ward. I am not going into another ward and telling another alderman what to do. I have a list of polling places from the Board of Election Commissioners telling me that this site is in Cullerton's ward." But Pudlo and Nielsen have a letter from Michael Hamblet, chairman of the Board of Election Commissioners, stating that "until May 1995, old ward boundaries will be utilized by various departments with the city of Chicago to provide services for their constituents because the Aldermen were originally elected from the old wards." Daley administration officials concur that the new ward boundaries will not take effect until after the aldermanic elections of 1995.
"As far as the Board of Elections and the administration say, this is still part of Levar's ward," says Pudlo. "But it really doesn't matter, because Cullerton and Levar are both useless, if you ask me. We could never get Cullerton to return our calls. When we finally caught up to him in the lobby of City Hall and asked him about the asphalt plant, he says, 'It's not my problem.' We asked Levar and he says, 'I don't know nothin', but if I hear of somethin' I'll let you know.' Oh, gee thanks, Pat. Meanwhile, a hundred things have happened and we haven't heard from him once." (Cullerton would not return phone calls.)
On October 15 Palumbo's zoning lawyer, Daniel Houlihan, sent a letter to Nielsen and other residents near the site, informing them of his plan to file an application for a zoning change to "authorize a redevelopment of the former railroad yard with a modern asphalt plant." On October 22 nearly 50 residents headed downtown for a meeting of the council's zoning committee, chaired by 36th Ward Alderman William Banks. "Banks was very sarcastic," says Nielsen. "When he sees us, he says, 'All you people here for Palumbo are at the wrong meeting. He hasn't filed yet.' But we weren't just there for Palumbo's zoning application, we were also there for the zoning amendment, which was deferred."
Afterward, a Daley publicist offered to arrange a meeting between residents and city officials (the meeting has been scheduled for 6:30 PM on November 9 at 3801 N. Keeler). "We want residents to know that this is by no means a done deal," says Henderson. "It will be a while before this facility is operating, if it's operating at all. Our position is that there are very strict requirements that Palumbo has to meet before they get started." As for the dumping in early September, Henderson says he will dispatch some investigators to see if any laws were broken.
"At the November 9 meeting they will probably tell us how many jobs this facility will create," says Nielsen. "I don't know if I'll believe them. The lesson I've learned from all of this is that for the sake of your neighborhood you have to watch these city officials every step of the way."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.