News & Politics » Neighborhood News

DePaul invades Sanctuary, home owners pray for help



As soon as she saw the town houses in the Sanctuary two years ago, Suzanne Hogan knew it was as close as she'd get to middle-class paradise on earth, and in the heart of Chicago yet. Located at the corner of Sheffield and Fullerton, the condominium complex--62 apartments and 17 town houses built around an enclosed courtyard is in the heart of Lincoln Park, a block from the el and five minutes from the lake.

"We looked everywhere, and we decided the Sanctuary was best," says Hogan, who owns Suzanne Gallery, a craft shop in River North. "My husband, Michael, and I bought our town house for $260,000 in 1987. This is where we want to raise our family. We never, ever thought we'd be displaced."

But a few weeks ago Hogan's mail contained this bomb shell: an official notice of DePaul University's plans to convert the Sanctuary into a dormitory for 500 students. The university, already under contract to buy all 62 apartments and the seven town houses in the Sanctuary that are vacant, also wanted to buy the ten occupied town houses as well. The ten families who live there have a choice. They can stay and risk life among frisbees, beer kegs, and high-volume rock 'n' roll, or they can accept DePaul's offer and get out.

"We don't think their offer is fair," says Hogan of DePaul's pledge to pay each owner 11 percent more than his town house cost. "It won't compensate for the money we've already spent improving our units; it won't cover our costs if they make us move. But that's beside the point. These are our homes; we love it here. We don't want to move."

What's most painful to the townhouse residents (about 30 people all told, children included) is the relative indifference of the powers that be. Edwin Eisendrath, their alderman, says he must study the plan; Mayor Eugene Sawyer praised it; and the Sun-Tim dismissed the Sanctuary town-house residents as "yuppies."

The prospective Sanctuary dorm is part of DePaul's planned $150 million expansion, an ambitious project dear to the hearts of city leaders, despite the fact that the measurable benefit to the city would be small and that valuable land would be withdrawn from the property-tax rolls. The upscale residents of the Sanctuary are learning that the price for progress in Chicago is paid by those unfortunate souls who find themselves in its way. It's a lesson the poor have known for years.

"DePaul has offered a very reasonable price," the Reverend John Richardson, president of DePaul, said at the press conference unveiling the expansion plan. "Living next to students might not be what they [the residents] wanted, but they purchased property rights in the middle of our campus."

"We feel for the residents," adds Thomas Coffey, president of the Haymarket Group, a public-relations concern that works with DePaul. "But this is larger than one neighborhood. DePaul is making a major investment in Chicago's educational life."

The conflict has grown out of Lincoln Park's and DePaul University's growth and the Sanctuary's failure. In the last two decades, the neighborhood has evolved from a working-class community into boomtown, one of two or three sections of Chicago where the well-to-do aspire to live.

When it comes to Lincoln Park, otherwise sensible men and women lose control. They pay inflated prices for whatever units they can find; meanwhile developers scramble to fill any available land with cheap, shoddy construction they know will rent or sell anyway.

As for DePaul, in 1978 it happened to recruit a chubby inner-city basketball player neamed Mark Aguirre, who turned the team into a national powerhouse. Since then enrollment at DePaul, once known as "the little school under the el tracks," has climbed, and the school has built new dorms, libraries, parking lots, and athletic facilities at its Lincoln Park undergraduate campus.

"DePaul has always been known as a commuter school for students interested in law, commerce, or accounting," says Coffeey. "In 1984 they embarked on a plan to expand and bolster their liberal-arts program. They want to draw more students from out of the area. They want to become a major university."

Tapping its network of successful alumni, DePaul raised $50 million in four years, then announced plans to convert the shuttered State Street Goldblatt's department store into adjunct classrooms for its law school, which is downtown. In addition, they plan to expand the Lincoln Park campus, building a new library, admissions office, sports center, and, yes, dormitories: one in an abandoned factory at Sheffield and Montana, the other in the Sanctuary.

The Sanctuary, on the other hand, has had a less prosperous past, especially in the last ten years. In 1978 its original developer won City Council approval to convert what had been a convent, built around the turn of the century, into residences, but he went bankrupt shortly thereafter. Then a subsidiary of Lyons Savings & Loan Association, SURIC, took over the project. By 1986, all the units had been completed. But partly because of upheavals in the savings and loan industry, Lyons and its subsidiary were in trouble, and prospective buyers looked askance at a property whose financial backing seemed shaky and whose eventual ownership was a matter of conjecture. With a more successful developer, given its prime location, most observers agree it would have sold out. But buyers were wary, and the result was that only ten town houses and 11 apartments were sold. The other apartments--some 50 or so--were rented.

"We knew we were taking a risk when we bought here," says Tim Vezeau, an attorney who bought his three-bedroom town house in 1987. "The prices were low because of all the problems. There were other problems: like bad plumbing. Sometimes the management company was slow answering our complaints. But we all figured the building had potential."

Late last year, word leaked that a mysterious buyer, acting on behalf of DePaul University--was buying all the apartments.

"We had a source who told us that DePaul was behind the [purchases]," says Vezeau. "I asked one condo owner why he had sold, and he said: 'I was offered a price I couldn't refuse.' That's when we knew something big was going on. "

The residents called DePaul for comment, and a meeting was scheduled for last January 12 at the university.

"That meeting looked like a painting of the Last Supper," says Richard Fantus, a town-house owner and director of trauma services at Illinois Masonic Hospital. "DePaul had six representatives, and they were lined up along one side of the table--all dressed in suits--waiting for us. They were primed for us. They had a message, and it wasn't good."

The residents were shocked to find out at the meeting what DePaul planned for the Sanctuary--up until then, they had assumed DePaul was buying for investment. They felt duped because Lyons, which has three representatives on the five-person condominium association, hadn't told them about DePaul's interest--a violation, they charge, of their condominium association's guidelines.

"Some of us have put as much as $25,000 into our units," says Vezeau. "Neither Lyons nor DePaul told us what was happening. They are disrupting our lives and reducing our property value, and their basic attitude is: take it or leave it. Their PR guys say we should have expected something like this if we live near a college. Well, there's a big difference between living across the street from a college and having that college put 500 students into your front lawn."

They hired a lawyer, Michael Shakman, and a publicist, Marilyn Katz, who took their case to the public.

"Not once did DePaul approach us humanely to ask how they might make this transition easier," says Hogan. "They never said: 'We realize this is awful; how can we help you?' From day one they came at us like the aggressors. I grew up in a Catholic home and went to Catholic schools, and I find it offensive that a nice Catholic university would do this. It's un-Christian."

DePaul officials, however, tell a different story. They had planned to build a new dormitory elsewhere when a real-estate broker came to them with the idea of transforming the Sanctuary, says Coffey. That was in about November of 1988.

"If you ask most people in Lincoln Park--as we did, we worked with them on every stage of the plan--they'll say they'd rather have us convert an existing building than build a new one for a dorm; that way there's less congestion," says Coffey. "OK, we didn't tell the town-house owners we were buying the apartments. But if we'd done that, apartment owners would know DePaul was the buyer; they would have asked for more money, and we wouldn't have gotten a fair price.

"We really did want to know how we could make things easier for the town-house owners. But at the start of our meeting with them, one of them announced they were probably going to hire a lawyer. After that, what could we say? Legal ethics require that we deal with them through their attorney."

The residents deny the charge that they brought up during the meeting the possibility of legal action, but the case does now rest in the hands of the lawyers: Shakman and Errol Stone, who represents DePaul. Shakman argues that the Sanctuary was built under a zoning ordinance that prohibits its use as a dormitory. Stone counters that the Sanctuary will be "student housing," not a dormitory. And it's legal to rent apartments to students.

Stone quibbles, the residents say. And they have pressed their case before lawyers for the city, who must decide whether DePaul needs City Council approval to create a dorm out of the Sanctuary. No doubt DePaul wants to avoid Council involvement, which means costly and time-consuming hearings. The only thing that's certain is that the city won't rule until after the April 4 mayoral election.

"By then the mayor probably will be Richard Daley," says one City Council observer. "And guess where Rich went to law school? He went to DePaul. If the residents are counting on Daley to go against DePaul, they'd better start looking for new housing now."

Of course, if the city--under Daley or any other mayor--approves DePaul's request, the residents can sue. Shakman thinks they might win, and he has uncovered quite a few zoning-restriction decisions that support his argument. Then again, legal precedent may not help much if the trial judge disagrees. And an awful lot of Cook County's judges graduated from DePaul.

Their best hope, then, is to rally public support. One local group, the Sheffield Neighbors Association, voted last week to oppose the DePaul plans for expansion (though not because of the Sanctuary residents' grievances). If opposition snowballs, Eisendrath may embrace the residents' cause. He would have a good reason; student housing is not the most productive use for that land for the city. Like all not-for-profit schools, DePaul is exempt from the property tax. If DePaul runs the Sanctuary as a dorm, the city will lose a potentially lucrative source of income.

On the other hand, so long as the Sanctuary remains a condominium complex it's at the mercy of the fickle market. And that could reduce its usefulness to the city, too. Who will replace all the current young Lincoln Parkers when they pack up their children and hightail it for the suburbs? And don't look to the younger set: the baby boom has peaked; we're running out of young professionals. In time there may be lots of vacant town houses in Lincoln Park.

DePaul University, though, has been in the neighborhood since 1898; they're not leaving. The residents say the same, though DePaul may eventually force them to reconsider with an offer they can't afford to refuse. "DePaul wants to be a good neighbor," says Coffey. "I'm sure we can work something out."

"They have us in a bad position and they know it," says Hogan. "They know how much money lawyers cost, and they know they have much more money than we do. When I think that they may force us to give up our homes, it makes me ill. Let this be a warning: You don't think it can happen to you. Well, it can."

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

Add a comment