Most of us would agree that it's great news—that it's about-freaking-time news—when the city announces it's forged a deal to bring a supermarket to a longtime food desert in Roseland. Many of us might also wonder if it should have taken less than ten years and cost less than $3 million in taxpayer money.
NBC 5's Steve Rhodes picked up a story from Crain's this morning reporting that the city is selling about five long-vacant acres on Michigan and 115th to a developer for a buck. Crown Commercial Real Estate & Development plans to build a retail center featuring an Aldi market. Ninth Ward alderman Anthony Beale says the new shopping center will also include an AJ Wright clothing outlet and other smaller stores.
Beale is also working to lure a Wal-Mart or some other big box store that sells food to another empty site about a mile away. The Roseland and Pullman neighborhoods have been without a supermarket for years. "We have to address the food desert down here," he told me.
But critics have accused Beale and his ally / pastor James Meeks of bungling previous opportunities to lure a grocer to the area. When the alderman was up for reelection two years ago, his opponent Earick Rayburn circulated photos of the empty space at 115th and Michigan, calling it "one of the biggest broken promises made to constituents of the Ninth Ward in the last eight years." Beale shot back that Rayburn had no idea what he was talking about because he'd just moved back into the neighborhood.
But the facts suggest that Meeks and the city, with Beale's assistance, were largely responsible for the property sitting empty.
As I reported in 2007:
"The lot wasn't always vacant. In the late 90s it was occupied by the Roseland Plaza Shopping Center, which had a laundry, restaurant, hardware store, and Christian bookstore. In 1998 the Reverend James Meeks, pastor of the nearby Salem Baptist Church, began talking about getting a supermarket to move to the neighborhood, and he and Salem's attorney approached the shopping center's owner, Samy Hammad, about buying it. According to court records, by 1999 Hammad thought they'd worked out a deal for $3.5 million.
"That same year Beale, a Salem member, was elected alderman and pledged to support Meeks's efforts to get a supermarket for the site. That August Mayor Daley met with Meeks at the site's bookstore. Meeks later testified that they didn't talk about the shopping center, but Hammad maintained that they did. By September the sale to Salem had stalled.
"Beale says Hammad was the problem: 'The owner was very uncooperative about bringing in a quality store.' Beale says he then asked the city to invoke eminent domain laws. A month later, claiming the site was needed for development, the city condemned it, offering to pay Hammad $2.5 million. Hammad sued the city for the $3.5 million he said he'd been promised by Salem, and he accused Meeks and Beale of engineering the condemnation so the church wouldn't have to foot the bill. In a brief his lawyer wrote, 'Reverend Meeks was able to persuade the Alderman he helped elect, who is a member of his church, and the City to condemn Mr. Hammad's property.' Meeks's attorney says there was no such deal.
"The case dragged on until 2004, when the city agreed to settle, paying Hammad $3.1 million. The existing businesses were forced to move—Beale says many of them went to other locations in the neighborhood—and last year the shopping center was demolished."
Since 2006 Beale and city development officials have been trying to get Aldi or some other major grocery store to commit to the site. "What took so long is that we had to move in and take the property with eminent domain, and that was a four-and-a-half-year battle," Beale says. "Then we had to put the property out for proposal, and that took time."
The new deal signals an end to that quest. It means that Roseland will finally get its grocery store. It also means that the store will be built on property the city sold to a developer for roughly $3,099,999 less than it paid for it 10 years earlier—not including sizable legal bills and building demolition costs.