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Trees on trouble on the southwest side

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It will be, backers say, one of the biggest nonsubsidized economic shots in the arm the southwest side has seen in years. Sometime this summer they'll clear the 30-acre forest that sits in front of the cemetery and across the street from the high school at 87th and Kedzie, and construct 62 single-family homes and a shopping mall. The city's annual sales-tax haul from the mall--anchored by a Dominick's--could run as high as $100,000, which is $100,000 more in taxes than the land produces now.

"It looks like a good deal," says Marty Juricek, a longtime activist and resident of the area. "But if you look closer you see there could be a lot of problems." Like the fact that traffic to and from the mall may cause congestion and noise and undercut the value of nearby property. Or that too many trees--the forest is the largest piece of unprotected open space left in Chicago--will be lost forever once the concrete is poured. Or that the shopping mall will divert customers and cash from nearby neighborhood operations. Or, as many locals might put it, it's just not fair that a hotshot developer, backed by big bucks and fancy lawyers, can waltz in and do what he wants to a community.

So goes another round of economic development in Chicago, where difficult planning decisions are made even more complicated by a chorus of competing voices--some calm, others shrill. The city needs every little chunk of development it can get. Yet does its desperation give it the right to upset the tranquillity of a stable middie-class community? That's the question at the heart of the 87th Street mall dispute, which will soon

come before the city's aldermen when they decide whether to grant the zoning change needed by the developer to begin the project.

"It's a tough choice," says Dennis McDermott, executive director of the SouthWest Business Association, a local not-for-profit organization. "I've listened to both sides, and I understand why the residents are fighting. But it's this guy's land. He wants to develop it. There's a good chance he's going to develop it too. We have to make sure that the development works for us."

The issue surfaced last May with a headline in the local newspaper, the Southtown Economist: "Planned shopping center will be state-of-the-art." It turned out that Clifford DiLorenzo, president of Enviro-Technics, a suburban-based development company, had arranged to buy the land for $13 million, contingent on winning city approval for his $26-million project.

From DiLorenzo's perspective, the location was ideal. Ashburn and Wrightwood, two nearby communities, have per-capita incomes of about $35,000, one of the highest rates in the city. More than 90 percent of the property there is owner occupied, a third of the residents are at least 55 years old, and many of them are professionals. The area has the look and feel of a northwest or southwest suburb. Most of the homes are brick ranch houses built after World War II; a suburban-style shopping mall would not look terribly out of place.

There are other shopping malls within easy driving distance, such as Evergreen Plaza, at 95th and Western, and Ford City, at 75th and Pulaski. But DiLorenzo has no plans for department stores. Instead he hopes to set aside about 20 acres for smaller shops, boutiques, parking, and the Dominick's. The houses--which would start at about $100,000--would be built along the northern portion of the parcel near 85th Street. "The demographics are good," DiLorenzo was quoted as saying, in an article written by Sally Daly, a Southtown Economist reporter. "It's a solid area with nice people and maintained homes. That's the customer we're interested in serving. This is not a discount shopping center."

"I looked at the area around the site," says Robert Miller, senior vice president of Applied Real Estate Analysis, Inc., a consulting firm employed by DiLorenzo. "Its a two-mile drive to the nearest, largest grocery store for homes in that area. This [Dominick's] would reduce the grocery-shopping trips for most residents by one half."

Nevertheless, many residents have opposed the plan from the start. Some die-hard preservationists, like Juricek, argue that the forest should remain undeveloped. "I don't want to lose any more of our trees," he says. "After last summer's drought I can really appreciate trees and shade. It wasn't that long ago that this area was all undeveloped. I'm only 38 years old, but I can remember a time when there was a farm at 83rd and Western. When we were kids, we roasted hot dogs out in what was just open prairie. And now we're in danger of losing the last piece left for a shopping mall. That's not right."

There are also nearby home owners whose Ashburn Civic Association has fought DiLorenzo tooth and nail. It's hard to explain precisely the association's point of view, since its leaders insist on directing press queries to their lawyers. But this much is certain: They are against the shopping mall, for fear of traffic congestion. But they are not bent on preserving the forest. To some, the forest has be come a bit of a nuisance, what with all the beer-drinking, pot-smoking youth who gather there. Apparently, they wouldn't mind if DiLorenzo--or any reputable developer, for that matter--built upscale, single-family homes there: the kind that would up the value of their property. "[My clients] believe that the project as it is now designed is not suitable for the area," says Mary Frances Murray, one of two lawyers representing the association. "They feel shopping in the area already is adequate and that this will decimate local shopping. We'd like to see primarily a residential development."

The association's members hired Faisal Raman, a business professor at nearby Saint Xavier College, to ask local business owners and residents what they would like to see built on the forest and to then formulate a plan based on their responses. The plan will be finished in a few weeks, Raman says.

McDermott, meanwhile, has already surveyed business owners on Kedzie Avenue from 75th to 87th streets. Half oppose the shopping mall and half are willing to compromise, McDermott says. "The businesses in our area that would be hurt by the mall are the florist, the card shop, the butcher, the little grocer, the two drugstores, the auto supply store, and the bakeries," he says. "I've talked to [DiLorenzo] about this. I asked him if he could build a smaller Dominick's. Because the smaller the Dominick's, the less room they have to offer items that compete with our shops. He said he was willing to be reasonable."

According to McDermott, DiLorenzo, who was out of town and unavailable for comment, may be willing to set aside part of his land for a library or a baseball diamond. "The longer we fight him, the more it's going to cost him in legal fees," says McDermott. "And if he wins he doesn't have to do anything for the community. Look at it this way. A tree costs about $150, which is what a downtown lawyer will charge you for an hour of his time. That's one less tree he's going to want to plant for every hour we fight this guy.

"Anyway, competition from the mall does not have to be bad. A lot of business strips that lead to shopping malls do very well. People are going to have to drive down Kedzie to get to the mall anyway. The trick is to get them to stop at our stores. We need more parking on Kedzie. We need to improve the appearance of the strip. If the city approves the shopping mall, maybe they can set aside some more money to improve the business district. That's the kind of thing we should be talking about. Yes, open space is nice. But this is 1989--it's not going to happen."

For his part, DiLorenzo hired Earl Neal and Daniel, Houlihan, two well-connected lawyers, and several traffic and planning experts to plead his case last December before the Chicago Plan Commission, an advisory group that makes nonbinding recommendations to the City Council. "With a project of this scope, you have to bring it before the Plan Commission," says Houlihan. "We argued that the plan was not out of line with existing property."

Specifically, witnesses for DiLorenzo testified that the Dominick's would not diminish the value of nearby property. "The shopping center will be separated from the nearby homes by trees, says Miller, echoing testimony he delivered on DiLorenzo's behalf. "As for competition with local businesses, if residents are concerned about this, they should shop at those businesses. Besides, from a public-policy point of view, I don't know why the city would intervene on the behalf of one business over another.

"If one business were at a disadvantage because the city was subsidizing its competitor, I could understand the outcry. But [DiLorenzo's] not getting a subsidy. He's built a lot of shopping centers like this in the suburbs. Now he wants to build one in the city. The residents say, 'Well, we already shop at the Jewel [in Oak Lawn] or the Dominick's [in Evergreen Park].' Those sales-tax dollars should remain in the city."

Apparently, members of the Plan Commission agreed. They unanimously recommended that the city approve DiLorenzo's plan. The issue now is whether the council will go along and OK DiLorenzo's request to change the property's zoning from residential to commercial use. "Remember, the Plan Commission is only an advisory board," says Murray. "The City Council has the say on zoning, and we feel there's a good chance they'll listen to the local alderman."

In this case, that's 18th Ward Alderman Robert Kellam, who supports the association and vows to lobby his council colleagues to vote against DiLorenzo's zoning request. Traditionally, an alderman gets his way on zoning matters in his ward. But in high-stakes showdowns--like the Wrigley Field battle over lights--the council has been known to overrule the local alderman. One way or another, the council's decision on the 87th Street mall will likely wind up being challenged in court.

"The courthouse is across the street [from City Hall]," says Murray. "The lawyers for both sides know our way over there. If any one of us doesn't like the council's vote, we can appeal. There's no saying how much money a long court case will cost, but it's a lot. The one thing working in their favor is money--they have a lot more of it than we do."

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

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