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A condo runs through it: debating the River's Edge development plan

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In a million years Dale Boiling never figured the city would approve plans to build 280 condominium units and 20 houses on the banks of the Chicago River. The project, proposed for a 17-acre site near the intersection of Foster and Pulaski, would make traffic even more congested, cause flooding, and pave over a forest--one of the last in Chicago. "I don't think the city would want to let this land be destroyed," says Boiling, who lives nearby. "I can't see why."

Yet in November the project, known as River's Edge, came close to winning Plan Commission approval, even though the most relevant environmental-impact study had not been completed. Moreover, Valerie Jarrett, the city's planning commissioner, enthusiastically endorsed the project, saying it "would have no adverse impact on the public health, safety, or welfare." River's Edge, city officials contend, merits support because it would increase the city's property-tax base and encourage more middle-class residents to stay in Chicago.

But opponents have another explanation for the project's support at City Hall--clout. The developer is represented by Daley & George, a law firm headed by Michael Daley, the mayor's brother, and Jack George, the mayor's former law partner and one of his oldest friends. "This is a classic case of political muscle at work," says Joe Cicero, executive director of the North River Commission, one of the larger community groups in the area. "There's nothing illegal here. It's just that people in City Hall see George's name as lawyer and they think the plan has the mayor's blessing."

The project was unveiled last summer by developer Bruce Adreani, president of Norwood Builders. (Adreani and George did not return phone calls.) To his credit, Adreani was open to community concerns. Throughout the summer he met with residents, leading them on tours of the site and showing them other complexes he's built. In response to their complaints Norwood Builders reduced the number of units that would be built from 356 to 280, set the project farther back from the river, and dropped the five condominium buildings from six stories to five.

Yet the opposition persisted. For one thing, the complex would wipe out what is habitat for several interesting species--red fox, wood ducks, Cooper's hawks--though none of them is on the endangered list. For another, it would feed more traffic onto Foster, which is already heavily used, particularly in the late afternoon.

Another concern is potential flooding. The project would require the building of a new road and parking lots on the floodplain. "If you cover the land with an impervious surface you stop the land from acting as a sponge," says Laurene von Klan, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River. "Then where does the water go? It goes into the river, which means more runoff and flooding with heavy rains."

Critics charge that the city's liability if houses and parks flood would offset any tax revenue generated by the project. "You also have to consider the cost of salting and plowing that new road," says Erma Tranter, executive director of Friends of the Parks, a watchdog group. "No project is ever without its costs."

There's also the issue of open space. The complex would be built in the middle of an expanse of open land that includes a park, a forest preserve, and a cemetery. A few years ago the North River Commission lost a fight to keep an adjacent vacant site from being leveled for a shopping center. "Each time the city says, 'This project will be the last,'" says Boiling. "And then they come right back with another one, until bit by bit they are destroying what little green space we have left. There are kids in the city who have never had the joy of seeing a butterfly in an open field. I'm not saying that kids are going to come over here to look at butterflies, but why wipe the possibility out?"

For the most part, city officials have been impervious to such pleas. In her recommendation to the Plan Commission Jarrett wrote that the developer has "committed to . . . fully comply with the requirements of the Chicago Flood Control Ordinance." She went on to write that "large areas would remain largely undisturbed with much of existing vegetation retained," and that "the [plan] would be a beneficial and appropriate development of this site."

However, Jarrett made de these claims even though the city had never conducted an independent examination of the project's effect on flooding in area. According to Henry Henderson, commissioner of the city's Department of Environment, the site might be part of the kind of floodplain that's heavily regulated by the federal government. "If it's determined that the site is in what the federal government calls a 100-year floodplain, then the project would be subject to many more regulations," he says. "You would have to look at its impact on the displacement of water and the effect on surrounding property."

Henderson says the state is conducting the appropriate floodplain study of the site, but the study is still at least three weeks from being completed. Nonetheless Jarrett placed the project on the agenda for the November meeting of the Plan Commission, a 17-member advisory body consisting of mayoral appointees as well as aldermen, city officials, and other ex officio members. Jarrett specifically asked the commission to recommend that Norwood Builders receive the necessary zoning change for the site. The commission's position--either for or against--would then be sent to the City Council, which has final say on zoning matters.

Critics contend the Plan Commission should never have been asked to consider the project until all the pertinent facts had been gathered. "The commission can't make a relevant opinion if they don't have all the facts," says Cicero. "They shouldn't even be asked to consider the matter. There was such a rush job." He argues that the project moved so quickly through City Hall because George was its lawyer.

Indeed, Daley & George's influence as a zoning-law firm was the subject of front-page articles in both downtown dailies last month, following a spirited exchange between Mayor Daley and Ninth-Ward alderman Robert Shaw. The fracas began when Shaw, one of the mayor's few council critics, suggested that there was a conflict of interest in having a law firm run by the mayor's friend and brother handle so many of the zoning issues the city must decide.

Daley reacted with visible anger. "I'm not going to respond to that," he said, shaking his finger at Shaw. "It's a cheap shot."

Daley went on to explain that he was angry at the implication that he'd had anything to do with winning city business for Daley & George. "They have never talked to me about these matters," he told reporters. "I am completely shielded whatsoever. I have no relationship with that firm."

Henderson says that, like Jarrett, he has never been even remotely influenced by the fact that George and Mayor Daley are friends. "This project is not whipping through City Hall," he says. "The developer is being held to the same standards as anyone else."

Does that mean the city routinely endorses projects before the relevant environmental studies are complete?

"You have to realize that the Plan Commission is only an advisory board," says Henderson. "The applicant has repeatedly been told that they can't get final determination until they get approval for the floodplain thing."

So why bother bringing the issue before the Plan Commission--why even have a Plan Commission, for that matter?

"I don't think this is an example of institutional supineness," says Henderson, "but of institutions representing the public interest."

On November 10 the matter came before the Plan Commission. Commissioner Doris Holleb, one of the group's more independent members, raised questions about the potential for flooding. "I was worried that they were building on a floodplain, and I couldn't get a straightforward answer," she says. "So I made a motion to defer the matter until we could get a satisfactory answer."

But the commission, apparently determined to plow ahead with or without the relevant information, voted against Holleb's motion. They seemed set to recommend a zoning change for the project when it was discovered that one member had left, denying them a quorum. The vote was deferred until the January 13 meeting, where it was deferred once more, this time at Norwood Builder's request.

The project's opponents, who include virtually every environmental group in the city, suffered a setback earlier this month when the Cook County Forest Preserve decided not to buy the site and preserve it as open space. Most observers figure the city will attempt to defuse opposition by asking the developer to reduce the project even more.

But the opponents say there can be no compromise. "No matter how small they make it, they're still taking away open land," says Cicero. "I wish someone, in the city would have had enough guts to stop this thing before it got such a full head of steam."

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

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