News & Politics » Neighborhood News

The squabble at Homan Square: west-siders challenge developers' plans for the old Sears complex

by

1 comment

The redevelopment of Sears, Roebuck and Company's former west-side home--a sprawling complex of empty buildings in which the retail giant was based until moving downtown in 1973--may spark the revival of North Lawndale. However, the explosive atmosphere at a recent public hearing showed the project lacks the popular support needed for quick City Council approval. At one point, police even stepped in. Promoters of the new Homan Square project came to talk about "affordable housing." But residents of an area that still bears the scars of the 1968 rioting fear they will be dispossessed.

Despite a freezing rainstorm, more than 500 people jammed the Douglas Park field house--making Park District employees scramble for more chairs. A staffer for 24th Ward alderman Jesse Miller Jr. asked men to give up their seats to women.

Frank Martin, president of the Charles H. Shaw Company's Shaw Homes subsidiary, followed Alderman Miller and two city commissioners--Valerie Jarrett of the Department of Planning and Development and Marina Carrott of the Housing Department--to the podium to describe Homan Square. The five-phase project, which may take a decade to complete, includes the building of 600 housing units as well as the renovation of one million square feet of existing Sears buildings for retail, light industry, and institutional use. As the area's first major capital investment project in years, Homan Square could be a catalyst of new building on the blighted blocks around Sears's own 55-acre parcel.

Yet at the hearing no specifics were offered except for this project's initial phase--80 for-sale and for-rent housing units that Shaw had hoped to start building this spring. Martin said Sears had turned down many opportunities through the years to develop its land because none suitably addressed the "long-term best interests of the community." As Martin was concluding his remarks, somebody finally turned on the speakers out in the crowded hallway.

Houses in Homan Square are supposed to be priced from $76,000 to $93,000 and rental units from $375 to $575 a month. The first question from the audience got right to the point: What about the poor? Over half of the people in this community can't afford your new housing. As the crowd murmured in dismay, Miller began to respond. Soon the alderman was bellowing into the microphone: "Hold on! Hold on! Hold on! We're not going to have a bunch of yelling and screaming."

Formerly the executive director of the Lawndale People's Planning and Action Council, Miller defeated William Henry for 24th Ward committeeman in 1988 and then for alderman in '91. Last winter Mayor Richard Daley asked Miller if he'd been approached yet by Sears and Shaw. Their call seeking the alderman's support came a week later. Miller named a "blue-ribbon" committee that last summer began regular meetings with the developers. As news spread of the plans afoot for the industrial ghost town, neighborhood factions began to complain that the committee wasn't keeping them informed.

Everyone in this fragmented community agrees on at least one thing: a dose of progress is badly needed. Located south of the Eisenhower Expressway, north of 22nd Street, and west of California Avenue to the city's boundary with Cicero, North Lawndale has lost more than 60 percent of its housing and over half its population since 1960. Today almost half the land is vacant and half the people live below the poverty line.

Many residents suspect Homan Square is a Trojan horse--the opening salvo in a wave of investments that will drive up rents and taxes and drive longtime residents from their homes. Signs of gentrification loom to the east. One block east of Western Avenue, town houses are for sale at $150,000. Farther east, near the University of Illinois at Chicago, they sell for $250,000 to $400,000. The Shaw Company's previous near West Side projects include Garibaldi Square, Center Court Gardens, and the Inn at University Village. The well-connected Charles Shaw is a trustee of Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center.

"We want development, but not if it develops us out of this neighborhood," Miller said last fall, explaining that the purpose of the committee he appointed was to protect the interests of his ward's 55,000 residents. "If you're part of the planning process," he said, "you won't plan yourself out of your own community."

Homan Square's full scope, however, remains a mystery. At Douglas Park, the only thing said about the second housing phase is that it depends on the market. The panelists' flustered responses suggest they were expecting an audience of prospective home buyers rather than poor people. Questions from the floor were answered directly--in fact, almost instantly--from despairing voices in the hallway. "What kind of voice will renters have?" asked Anna Morrison of the Boulevard Management Residents Association. "They're telling you already, none," someone behind me said. "What percentage of jobs will go to west-side contractors?" another questioner asked. "You ain't going to get 'em," sneered a hefty woman bundled up in a winter coat.

At one point two cops stepped in to escort out an irate young man who wanted to know how nonunion North Lawndale residents could ever expect to get construction jobs. One city staffer joked nervously about the intense level of "community involvement"; another conceded that the Homan Square community-consensus-building phase wasn't as advanced as he'd hoped.

The Daley administration wants to break ground soon, but can hardly ask various city departments and commissions to make recommendations to the City Council on an array of subsidies and permits until assured that Sears, Shaw, and the community have forged some semblance of an agreement.

The developer is requesting nearly half of the Housing Department's new home subsidies in 1993 and 20 percent of its federal tax credits, a department spokesperson said. The requests were made to New Homes for Chicago, a city program that's subsidizing the construction of 1,000 single-family homes between 1991 and '95. The Shaw Company asked for $1.12 million--a $20,000-per-unit subsidy for each of 56 units--and $436,000 in tax credits that would be available for each of ten years. The city is also being asked to repair streets, sewers, water lines, and curbs throughout the Sears property and along its edges.

Last fall, a wrecking crew demolished a parking lot where the first houses will be built along Homan Avenue. Huge chunks of asphalt and concrete remain scattered about. Imminent demolition is the apparent fate of the square block on which stands the three-million-square-foot catalog building--for decades home to an American institution that Sears abolished just this week. All that will be spared there is the original Sears tower--a 14-story landmark constructed when the company moved to Homan and Arthington in 1905.

"Sears could have done a lot on the west side through the years, but they didn't," said the Reverend Basil Foley, pastor of the Carey Tercentenary African Methodist Episcopal Church, at 15th and Homan. Foley, who lives in Oak Park, was one of several ministers at the Douglas Park meeting who contended Homan Square must address the needs of the area's impoverished masses. In a heated give-and-take, Alderman Miller stood his ground behind the podium and Foley stood his 25 feet away, behind a lectern in the aisle, and decried this "disrespect of the community." Off to the side, two white men in blue suits leaned against the red brick wall--ashen, glum, and staring at the floor.

"The two Charlies," as they had been introduced, were Charles Moran, the chief administrative officer of Sears, and Charles Shaw, whose development firm has built 7,000 housing units in the last two decades, mainly in large cities. Sears wants to "facilitate the creation of a development that has lasting value for the community," Moran told me during an interview in Sears Tower a week before the hearing. He said neither his company nor Shaw will make any profit from Homan Square. Shaw community-relations staffers argued that cities must get out of their reactive mode. Public dollars poured into social services and the criminal justice system, the staffers told me, would be better spent redeveloping blighted areas so that local residents can move into the sort of good housing that builds a sense of pride.

Their praise of Homan Square's location--near public transportation, hospitals, the Eisenhower, and downtown--is new. Nobody promoted the site's virtues in 1989 when Sears threatened to move its merchandising unit's 10,000 jobs out of state. Then-governor James Thompson engineered a complex deal that saved Sears, a deal in which the General Assembly permitted Sears to snatch $90 million of northwest Cook County land essentially for free. Last fall the Sears Merchandise Group moved into a six-building complex in Hoffman Estates on about a quarter of what will become a splendid office park called Prairie Stone. Crain's Chicago Business estimates that when Homart, Sears's development subsidiary, builds out the space, which is almost 15 times the size of Homan Square, the corporation will have created a $1 billion asset.

Sears sought the state's help to carve up farmland rather than reconfigure its former headquarters because North Lawndale didn't meet "corporate objectives." According to Charles Moran, Sears wanted to capitalize on the escalating effect its own presence at a location would have on land values. Sears Tower helped turn Wacker Drive into Chicago's premier office address, Moran explained, but although the value of surrounding property "grew out of the investment that Sears made," the company didn't share in the profits. The Merchandise Group's move was planned differently. "One of the criteria was that we needed sufficient additional land to develop over the years so that we could reduce the cost of occupying our own space," he said, noting that North Lawndale didn't offer "enough land for future development."

In the view of Alderman Ed Smith, whose 28th Ward is just west of the site, Homan Square represents a golden opportunity to unload corporate dead weight in the guise of philanthropy. "Whatever Sears does is appreciated, but it's minuscule," Smith told me in an interview, noting that in the 1960s, while he was working at Sears, earning the money to buy his first home, the company employed 12,000 people in its Lawndale plants, operated the Tower retail store, and funded the local YMCA. When Sears moved into the world's tallest building the jobs vanished, and eventually the retail store closed and the Y funding ended. "For all the billions of dollars Sears took out of this community, this is the way they're trying to jettison ill feelings," Smith said.

"I'm sorry he feels that way," Moran said. In many west-side community meetings in the last year, he'd observed "a substantial residue of goodwill."

At Douglas Park, as the indignant voices rose, Moran's shoulders drooped and his tall, gaunt figure turned toward the brick wall. Alderman Miller stood on the firing line, insisting the "process has been open all along."

"I've lived in this community since February 1, 1947," said David Rhodes, the ward's alderman from 1971 to '79. Calling this only the second Homan Square meeting he's known about, Rhodes shouted, "Miller, you're on the gravy train."

"Most of the people who created this confusion do not live in this community. They were planted in here," Odell Lee, a Chicago Park District supervisor who heads Miller's committee, boomed into the podium microphone. He accused these outsiders of being upset because they couldn't control a project that would help the community determine its own destiny.

The Reverend Clarence Hilliard lives in Maywood, pastors the Austin Corinthian Baptist Church a mile and a quarter west of Homan Square, and serves as president of the West Side Isaiah Plan, a coalition of churches in the midst of a six-year effort to build 250 housing units throughout the west side. When Hilliard addressed the crowd, he defended his right, outsider or not, to criticize how Miller's committee has tried to build public support. Afterward, he shook his head and said of the committee, "The more they talk, the more they hurt themselves."

Park District commissioner Michael Scott showed up in sweat clothes in the middle of all the shouting. A friend had called his nearby home to tell him what he was missing. A Lawndale property owner, Scott briefly belonged to Miller's blue-ribbon committee but quit, saying he didn't want to "baby-sit a difficult and tenuous process." Scott thinks Miller has handled the Homan Square project badly, keeping his committee on too tight a rein to be credible in the community's eyes.

As the meeting drew to a close, South Austin activist George Lawson gestured toward the thinned-out crowd and attributed the relative quiet to the departure of people "looking for free housing." Lawson is affiliated with the South Austin Coalition Community Council (SACCC), which owns some land Shaw is developing. "A developer can't afford to come in and do low-income housing for less than $375 rent," he explained, and suggested Homan Square will be affordable to current North Lawndale residents only if they're helped by considerable federal subsidies.

Tonya and Jeremiah Mack, a young Austin couple who are becoming acquainted with a beloved federal subsidy better known on income tax forms as the home owner's mortgage-interest deduction, stopped to greet Lawson on their way out the door. The Macks bought a home in Quincy Street, a Shaw development between Cicero and Laramie that's part of the New Homes for Chicago program.

The Macks, introduced at the beginning of the meeting as proud owners of a Shaw home, said they were exasperated by the three hours of squabbling. "I look at the rentals . . . " Mrs. Mack said, her voice trailing off as if words could not describe such a pittance. "Yeah," Lawson said, "but that's because you're working."

One of the last persons to speak from the podium had been Larry Williamson, a young options trader from the 24th Ward who challenged the Shaw Company to start a program to teach African Americans how to become entrepreneurs. After the meeting, a Shaw attorney approached Williamson and said, "You made the most constructive comment tonight."

The preoccupation with 600 new housing units over ten years obscures one of urban redevelopment's great challenges. Some 1,000 North Lawndale housing units are abandoned each year, Gerry Morfesis, vice president of the Little Village Community Council, told the gathering. "Maybe you should focus on saving existing housing units." Morfesis, a real estate agent, said construction won't bring the west side more jobs, but they'll come if new industries move into renovated Sears buildings.

Morfesis was explaining to me that Chicago loses thousands of housing units a year for reasons such as a utility company shutting off the power or a slumlord losing financing. Just then, Moran approached and stuck out his hand to the young Greek-Cuban man. "I'm with Sears and you're 100 percent right," he said. "We've told the alderman, the mayor, and everybody that in those buildings that we call 'the good buildings' there's a great opportunity for jobs if we're all lucky or work damn hard at it."

Moran had gotten to work in the Sears Tower that morning at six and he had a meeting downtown the next day at 6:30. It must have been 10:30 before he finally left the field house for the long drive home to Oak Brook. At least the rain had stopped.

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

Comments

Showing 1-1 of 1

 

Add a comment