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More trials of the rich: seawall makes bad neighbors



Early on the morning of April 13, 1992, Lester Munson happened to look out the window of his town house, which perches on the bank of the Chicago River on Canal Street just north of downtown. Munson noticed Mayor Daley standing atop the Kinzie Street bridge, tossing one Styrofoam cup after another into a whirlpool near some recently installed wooden pilings.

Soon Munson's wife, Judith, called to say that water coursing through some abandoned railroad tunnels was undoing the Loop. "It was the great Chicago flood, and that whirlpool was its source," says Munson. "The next morning Governor Edgar was standing on the bridge. The morning after that, Dan Quayle."

At first the flood, a nightmare for downtown businesses, was simply a matter of curiosity for Munson, a writer for Sports Illustrated who works out of his home. But it has since plunged him into a bitter dispute with his next-door neighbor, an insurance agent named Jim Whitmer, over the seawall that fronts their houses.

After the flood Whitmer secured a low-interest federal disaster-relief loan to repair the seawall, which he claims was damaged by the efforts to plug the leaking tunnel. Munson contends the seawall wasn't damaged. He accuses Whitmer of using the flood as an excuse to get a taxpayer-subsidized loan. Munson also contends that Whitmer is destroying the beauty of the houses where they live.

Whitmer and Munson's houses, which are almost directly across the river from where the whirlpool was, are a legacy of Harry Weese, a Chicago architect who's best known for designing the Metropolitan Correctional Center and the Swiss Grand Hotel; he's now ailing and no longer working. Back when Jane Byrne was in office, Weese, a self-styled visionary, wanted to develop the west bank of the Chicago River from Fulton Street north to Grand Avenue, building offices, apartments, and a marina. Weese ran out of money, but not before an old cold-storage warehouse had been turned into condominiums and four town houses had been built on a fifth-of-an-acre parking lot just south of the Kinzie Street bridge, where a French fur trader named Guarie had once kept a trading house. They were the first single-family residences to be built that close to downtown in a century.

Weese wanted to build four "river cottages" modeled after ones he'd once seen on the Danube River in Hungary. He intended to occupy one of the cottages and served as his own developer, proceeding leisurely over three years. "He designed and redesigned," recalls Jerry McElvain, an architect with Weese's firm who worked on the project. "For Harry the river cottages evolved into a work of art that people would live in." The resulting four town houses are sloping structures, five or six stories high, with triangular bracings and patterns, a Weese signature. The houses come almost down to the river; Weese, an avid sailor, planned to moor his beloved 44-foot ketch out back.

At the time there was concern over the state of the seawall, southern pine timbers that had been put in decades ago. "But we did a study which showed there was no need for the wall to be replaced," says McElvain.

In 1990 Weese decided against moving in, and Munson and his wife purchased the unit that was to have been his. It was essentially a shell that the couple finished using their own architect. The larger unit just to the north had already gone to Whitmer, who was relocating to Chicago from Cleveland. Dr. Charles Campbell, a heart surgeon, bought the place just south of the Munsons, and Don Marion, a bar owner, moved in on the other side of Whitmer. Each house was owned independently, reflecting Weese's view that a river-cottage owner "would have something in common with his neighbor and would preserve the uniqueness that was there," says McElvain. "Harry believed in the brighter side of human nature." A restrictive covenant was placed on the properties, which contained a clause granting part of which granted Whitmer, who has a 40-foot cigarette boat, the right to construct a boat hoist according to a drawing he'd submitted.

The Munson's, former suburbanites with grown children, enjoyed their new urban existence, especially Lester. He'd changed careers, from law to sportswriting, and he relished working in his ground-level office with its peerless view of the river. Munson liked Whitmer well enough, but he remembers noticing that Whitmer frequently complained about the seawall. "He wouldn't talk about the weather or the Cubs," says Munson. "He kept talking and talking about putting in a new seawall. He said the present wall was too old, that there had been erosion, that the river was going to flood our houses--he was obsessed."

None of the river cottages were damaged during the Chicago flood, but Munson says Whitmer told him a tugboat had damaged the seawall. Whitmer said he'd contacted the Thatcher Engineering Corporation about rebuilding the wall and informed his neighbors that low-interest financing was available through the Small Business Administration disaster-assistance program, which has helped out victims of such calamities as the Mississippi River floods, Hurricane Andrew, and the Northridge, California, earthquake. Whitmer's application for a loan to rebuild his portion of the seawall was received by the SBA on April 24, 1992, just days after the flood, and was approved two months later.

Whitmer claims his section of seawall was damaged when a tugboat, its engines pumping full blast as it held a barge in place, sent a backwash pulsing into the timbers for several hours. Whitmer took photos of the damage and sent them to the SBA. He says the backwash loosened the timbers of his seawall, bowing it out as much as 18 inches. He also asserts that the tugboat smacked against the seawall "repeatedly." The SBA agreed with Whitmer that he had a right to the loan and gave him $258,000 repair the wall, to be repaid over 30 years at 4 percent annual interest, considerably lower than the market rate.

Whitmer's neighbors also applied for federal disaster relief. But Campbell had doubts about how much damage, if any, had been caused; when he received Thatcher's estimate that it would cost $60,000 to patch his portion of the wall, he commissioned a study by Lindahl Marine Contractors, based in Lockport. After an underwater inspection Lindahl concluded that the pine timbers had deteriorated some, but "the existing structural integrity . . . should have a useful remaining life of 20-25 years." Campbell backed out of the disaster-relief loan, as did the Munsons. Marion continued to pursue a separate $54,000 loan.

"I was at home during most of the time they tried to plug the leak and, let me tell you, nothing happened to that seawall," says Munson. "It's all bogus." Munson thought his opinion was bolstered by some correspondence Whitmer received from his home insurer just after the flood. The insurance company had inspected the seawall, then canceled Whitmer's home owner's policy. But the inspector said, "The condition of the retaining wall has not changed significantly within the last few months. The current condition is the result of long-term exposure to the elements and the deterioration of the wall." Munson assumed that means the wall wasn't in good shape, but neither the flood nor the effort to plug the leak was responsible.

Campbell believes the $256,000 Whitmer received was excessive. Extrapolating from the repair estimate he was given by Thatcher, he estimates the real cost of fixing Whitmer's portion of the seawall at no more than $120,000. But SBA spokesman Donald Wait says his agency, which also inspected the site, believes the amount of the loan was justified. Whitmer says one of the reasons the loan was so big was that a $90,000 cement "retaining wall" had to be installed between his house and Munson's to replace badly deteriorated steel rods that had been holding the seawall in place.

According to another SBA spokesman in Washington, D.C., a total of $1.2 million in disaster relief was dispensed to Chicago businesses and home owners after the flood--which means more than 20 percent of the relief went to Whitmer. (By comparison, the SBA granted $1 billion in loans to victims of the Northridge earthquake and $534 million to Mississippi flood victims. The spokesman suggests that the amount of loans for Chicago was small because most of the damage was covered by insurance.)

Munson says he kept asking to see Whitmer's plans for the seawall, but Whitmer refused. Munson says Whitmer told him, "It's my property, and I can do with it what I want." Richard Sutphen, a consultant with Thatcher Engineering, did show Munson some plans, but Munson says they only showed the outside of the seawall and not the retaining wall.

Thatcher Engineering began construction last winter, and soon Munson was furious. Down came a 50-year-old cottonwood tree that Weese had taken special pains to save, believing it softened the angular features of the river cottages. By spring the new seawall on Whitmer and Marion's property stood five feet above the bank of the river; the old wall had been flush with the bank. Wooden forms for what Munson charges is a motorboat launch--but which Whitmer says is merely the cement retaining wall--were hammered into place. They outlined a wall 10 feet wide and 14 feet high that would run between Munson's and Whitmer's houses all the way to the river. And in front of Whitmer's house, in the river itself, two high steel columns had appeared--the makings of a hoist for Whitmer's motorboat.

Munson maintains that what's being built is higher than the design detailed in the restrictive covenant. Whitmer counters that his new design is simpler. He also says the entire cost of the boat hoist--$100,000--is coming out of his own pocket.

Whitmer had applied for permits from the Illinois Department of Transportation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the city's Transportation Department for the seawall, but not for the boat hoist. Munson filed complaints with all the agencies, halting construction the first week in April, before the hoist could be completed. Whitmer has reapplied for permits, but now the agencies are investigating whether the hoist is too big. "If Whitmer's boat will be hanging out too far into the river on that hoist, there might be a problem with other traffic going by," says Gary Jereb, unit manager for IDOT.

On April 25 Whitmer filed suit against the Munsons, charging that they'd interfered with his right to build the seawall and boat hoist by "misrepresenting the work being done on the project" to city officials an neighbors and by "misrepresent [ing] facts regarding how Whitmer was allocating the funds obtained through the Small Business Administration loan," which caused the SB4 to stop disbursing the loan; he requested an injunction to block their meddling as well as punitive damages. The Munsons hammered back with a counter suit last week, charging that Whitmer had been installing the boat hoist without a permit and in violation of the restrictive convenant; they requested an injunction to prevent Whitmer from resuming work on the hoist and "appartenant structures."

"The fact that the seawall was damaged is a given," contends Whitmer. He says that if the replacement is elaborate, it needs to be to protect his house. And he says his yard on the river will be even more attractive than before. He says the cottonwood tree he took down "was the dirtiest thing you could imagine, with all its sticky sheddings. I tried to save it, but I just couldn't." In place of the cottonwood he has already planted a 30-foot white ash. "I'm trying to make what I'm doing aesthetically pleasing," he says, adding that he hired an architect to make his renovation pretty. "That's as important to me as to anyone, since I own a third of all this property."

Campbell is unconvinced. "Jim has ruined the value of these buildings. What he's done is not in good taste for the rest of the people here. You don't do this to your neighbors."

"We're all appalled at what he's constructing," says Munson. "When I look north out my office window now I see a concrete wall and rusty steel sheets, where once I had one of the best views in the midwest. What he calls a retaining wall is clearly an access pad for a truck to cart in his cigarette boat. He's supposed to be living in a river cottage, not a boat dock, a place of concrete and gasoline. Whitmer tells me that I should leave him alone, that I'm repulsive. And to tell you the truth, I do feel bad about all this. It's embarrassing, and I don't enjoy feeling this sense of outrage. But there never was any damage to that seawall. Money that's meant to help victims of floods and earthquakes is being used to build a private marina."

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

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