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Evicting the Evictors

Angry home owners face down city-backed developers on the near west side.

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By Ben Joravsky

Depending on your point of view, the redevelopment plan at Fillmore and Grenshaw was either a textbook exercise of brazen clout or a primer on how a few enterprising residents can manipulate the system to get what they want.

Either way, the outcome was a shock. "If you told me that we'd come away from this with our houses and property, I wouldn't believe it," says Chuck Parrillo, the near-west-side beat cop who led much of the local opposition to the housing plan. "I never thought it would end up like this."

The deck certainly seemed stacked against the residents when the issue broke last June. Up against some of the near south side's most powerful and influential developers were a bunch of senior citizens--like Parrillo's mother--who had been living around Taylor Street for years. The developers could claim the support of the Daley administration, whose Department of Planning had indicated a willingness to spend $9.5 million to clear almost eight acres of land on the near west side (near Taylor and Laflin)--displacing 26 home owners (many of them senior citizens) to build about 250 upscale condos.

City spokesmen say Daley knew nothing about the deal's early details, which were worked out by lower-level planning department officials. But why aides would encourage a plan that made Daley look like a bully is hard to understand. The area, a hot real-estate market, hardly needs public investment. Developers would probably build there without a subsidy.

Nonetheless, last June the development plan, under which homes and property would be seized by eminent domain, looked like a done deal. One of the developers, Ted Mazola, was a former alderman. The developers' lawyer, Gery Chico, was Daley's former chief of staff. The deal was blessed by Oscar D'Angelo, head of the Near West Side Conservation Community Council, a key advisory board. When city officials sent letters to local property owners notifying them that the Community Development Council--which advises the City Council--would hold a hearing on whether to seize their property, most of the owners figured the property was lost.

"That letter was the first anyone heard of the proposal," says Parrillo. "And it set off alarm bells. Because no one really believes these advisory boards are there to give you an honest deal."

Parrillo says he has good reason to be suspicious of the city. Born and raised in the area (his family has lived just south of Taylor and Laflin since the turn of the century), he can remember when thousands of homes were seized and residents displaced to make way for the University of Illinois. And there'd been other ambitious plans, including an unsuccessful proposal in the 1980s to clear property in the 1300 block of West Taylor for development.

"People figured something was coming because our property assessments were low. It was like the city didn't want to have to pay us a lot of money in condemnation costs," says Parrillo. "People said they were having troubles getting building permits, like they didn't want us to increase the value of our property. It was a lot of little things that added up."

The Fillmore-Grenshaw plan (named for two parallel streets just south of Taylor) would have been a Tax Increment Financing deal. That's a device planners reserve for "blighted" areas--the city borrows against future property-tax revenues. "We wondered why a project here needed city financing," says Parrillo. "And if they have to take our property, why take it for this? It's not a park or a school. Why take housing to build more housing?"

Within days Parrillo was on the phone, rallying residents against the plan. "Until Chuck called me I didn't even know about the project," says Sam Toia, whose family owns the Leona's chain of Italian restaurants, including one on Taylor Street. "I never received notice of the meeting, even though the city wanted to take away my parking lot at the back of my restaurant, which I need for customers and pizza deliverers. If I lose that parking I'm out of business."

Parrillo notified residents of a letter he had uncovered in city files that was written in 1990 by D'Angelo, as chairman of the conservation council, to Chicago's housing commissioner. D'Angelo urged the commissioner to "immediately purchase eleven structures" so town houses could be constructed and parking spaces provided. (It's not clear if the development proposal D'Angelo referred to then was the same as the Fillmore-Grenshaw plan; neither Mazola nor D'Angelo responded for comment.) "When assessing how much DOH must spend for the acquisition of vacant land, my information is that a figure of $3.00 to $4.00 per square foot is much more realistic than your staff's assumption of $7.50," D'Angelo wrote. "Once again, I urge you to file the condemnation suits now in order to freeze the value of the takings and before someone rehabs one of these dilapidated structures and DOH will then have 'egg on its face.'"

The letter made residents even more angry. "Oscar always makes himself out to be our great friend, and now he seemed to be working with the city to get our land cheap," says Parrillo.

As word of the deal spread, two of Mayor Daley's chief political foes, Congressman Bobby Rush and Alderman Helen Shiller, got involved. They were among the 100 people who showed up for the July 9 Community Development Council meeting.

"I saw Bobby eating in my restaurant and I asked him for help," says Toia. "He made a great speech [at the CDC meeting], and I could tell the mayor's people were looking at him and Helen and thinking, 'Uh-oh, what are they doing here?' [One of Chico's associates] said, 'Sam, we can work something out with parking.' That's when I knew they were getting nervous, because all of a sudden they were looking to make deals."

The project was put on hold, giving residents more time to organize. "We had some meetings with Rush, which was kind of strange for me," says Parrillo. "Back in the 60s, while I was working a beat car in the street, the congressman was a Black Panther. I told him, 'Mr. Congressman, this is strange. The last time we met we might have been shooting at each other.' He laughed. We got to be on a first-name basis. I have some people say, 'How can you partner with that black guy?' I say, 'Not many white guys called up to say how can I help you?' I knew he had his political reasons for opposing the deal. But, hey, Rush was there when we needed him."

Last September Parrillo organized a neighborhood meeting attended by Mazola, D'Angelo, and Alderman Burt Natarus. Mazola defended his plan, telling residents he'd never do anything to hurt them. "People were saying, 'Yeah, right. What about the people who are going to get moved?'" says Parrillo. "Then Oscar started in with all the great things he had done for the community. I couldn't take it anymore. I said, 'Oscar, I have a document you wrote. Would you read this?' It was his letter to the city. He didn't want to do it, but people started chanting, 'Read the letter.' He surprised me--he did read it. Well, when he got to the part about urging the condemnation suits in order to freeze the value of property, Natarus went nuts. He got up and said, 'You had no right to do that.' Oscar started screaming at Burt, 'You ain't even from this neighborhood.' From there it degenerated into a free-for-all with Burt walking out."

The media lapped it up. The Tribune wrote an article noting the peculiarity of Chico, Daley's handpicked school board head, advocating a project that could take tax dollars away from the system. Channel Five's Carol Marin went on the air with the anguished pleas of seniors about to lose their homes. And reporters wanted to know how the city could justify calling Taylor Street blighted. Meanwhile, Toia's lawyer, Jim Snyder, was filing Freedom of Information requests at City Hall to determine, among other things, who were the principals behind the deal.

The negative publicity forced Daley's hand. The mayor clearly did not want to take the heat for a private development. In November Toia, Snyder, and Parrillo were called downtown for a private meeting with top planning department officials. They learned there'd be no eminent domain; no one would lose property.

Put it in writing, Snyder demanded. It took the city almost three months to do so, but a few weeks ago issued a statement saying it "will soon be requesting Proposals from qualified developers for residential redevelopment" in the area but it "will not use its condemnation powers to acquire properties with existing buildings."

In retrospect, city officials admit the plan was ill-advised and poorly conceived. "We could have done a better job of thinking it through," says Greg Longhini, a planning department spokesman. "We were probably a little too ambitious in wanting to develop all of it."

As far as the city's concerned the controversy is over. But some residents aren't so sure. Last month Parrillo was moved off his walking beat along Taylor Street and put back on car patrol. The police department told him he wasn't being productive enough, but Parrillo feels it's an act of retribution and he's filed a union grievance. "I've been told I can't talk about it," says Parrillo. "The whole thing's left me feeling a little bitter. People say, 'Oh, you should thank the mayor.' But the mayor didn't give us anything. He just left me and my family alone with what we had."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Chuck Parrillo, Jim Snyder and Sam Toia by Eugene Zakusilo.

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