A garden goes in East Kenwood | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

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A garden goes in East Kenwood

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For 25 years Felix Shuman has been cultivating his garden near 48th and Cornell, protecting it from drought and flood. But now his garden, like the ones around it, confronts a challenge greater than all of nature's attacks.

If all goes as planned--and there's nothing to suggest it won't--the community gardens known as the Cornell Oasis will soon be paved over to make way for Cornell Square, a 60-unit complex of town houses and single-family homes.

From the standpoint of the developer, the plan makes all the sense in the world. The land's vacant and the low-rise housing market's hot. And if the Oasis must be sacrificed, well, that's a small price to pay for progress. "This is a great project," says Dan McLean, president of MELK Development. "I don't think most people care about those gardens. If you ask a lot of people, they'll tell you it's just a wild, rough spot."

To Shuman and other gardeners, however, the Oasis is a valuable spot--the last surviving patch of open space amid an array of high rises. They say the city has an obligation to protect it.

"This isn't someone's pepper plant," says Meryl Dann, a leader of the fight to save the gardens. "There are 200 mature trees here and hundreds of different species of birds, flowers, bugs, and plants. For years we've lost the fight against development that chews into our dwindling supply of open space, and now this is all we have left."

The Oasis, which runs along the Illinois Central Railroad track for about two blocks, is all that remains of what was once a glorious garden that went as far east as the Outer Drive. These days it's a rather inconspicuous patch, unannounced by any sign and hidden by trees. But behind those trees are 12 separate gardens, tended by an eclectic bunch that includes professors, students, folks whose past remains a mystery, and Shuman, a veteran actor whose gravelly voice is immediately recognizable to anyone who's ever heard the old commercial jingle "A sandwich just isn't a sandwich without the tangy zip of Miracle Whip."

"I try to keep things formal in my garden, but it doesn't always work out that way," Shuman says. "The great thing about gardening is you can't screw up. It never comes out exactly like you plan, but it looks beautiful anyway. Other gardeners, like Gerda Schild, who's been gardening here for 30 years, are less formal. Gerda plants stuff to attract birds and bees. It's as valuable as my garden--it just looks different."

The gardeners take their work seriously. Shuman is there almost every day. He built his plot from scratch, piling dirt over what was once a crumbling parking lot. He derives Wordsworthian moments of inward joy and wise passiveness from working in his garden. "I get into an alpha state when I garden. You just sort of leave your body. It's hard to explain."

The Oasis includes cacti, cottonwoods, magnolias, maples, grapes, raspberries, tomatoes, and coral bells, as well as about 56 species of birds and 28 species of butterflies. It's the site for nature hikes and bird-watching expeditions; it's where people gather each year to watch the forsythia blossom and the monarch butterflies return. "It's most beautiful in the winter," says Robin Kaufman, a longtime Hyde Parker, "when the trees are covered with all that clean, unblemished snow."

Like other Oasis visitors, Kaufman didn't know the garden was endangered until last winter, when word surfaced that McLean had purchased the land from the Illinois Central Railroad with the intent of building 26 town houses, 24 stacked town houses, and 26 single-family homes. In December Fourth Ward Alderman Toni Preckwinkle held a hearing, which about 50 residents attended.

"The people who showed up asked about the quality of the project and parking, and McLean handled both concerns," says Preckwinkle. "He pointed out that he's the developer of Dearborn Park and Central Station. And he said he would build at least two parking spaces for every unit. That took care of most of their concerns."

But opposition grew as word of the project spread, particularly among the gardeners. "You're killing more than the trees," says Dann. "You're killing all those birds. When you destroy a habitat birds don't just go away. They die."

There were also traffic and congestion issues. There are 17 high rises and more than 4,000 people in the three-block triangular area along Lake Shore Drive from 48th to 51st Street known as East Kenwood. Many of the residents have cars, so parking's at a premium. In some of the newer high-rise complexes parking spaces sell for $10,000. Other residents circle the streets for up to half an hour most nights in search of a place to park.

Oasis supporters wonder, why would the city aggravate this madness by allowing more housing to be built, bringing with it even more people and more cars? Especially when there are neighborhoods to the north and south just aching for development. They wonder, why doesn't the city use subsidies to lure developers to those neighborhoods? Why do city planners always seem so reactive? Why don't they ever seize the initiative? "There were no studies regarding whether this section would be overburdened by more development," says Julia Versau, a local resident. "We go into these things without a plan."

The reassurances city officials offered only strained credibility. An official from the transportation department told residents, Don't worry about traffic congestion; it's already so congested that 60 more units couldn't make it worse. "You call that planning?" says Dann. "This is what we pay them to come up with?"

Residents pleaded with Preckwinkle to oppose the development, telling her that opposition from the local alderman would kill the project. But Preckwinkle declined. The plan, she said, wasn't so bad--or at the very least could be worse. "McLean has the zoning to build about 1,300 high-rise units," she says. "In a sense, he's down-zoning."

Besides, Preckwinkle says, she's not convinced local opposition is widespread. "Basically you have about a dozen or two dozen gardeners here. It's not their land. They have been gardening there for 20 years and never paid for the use of the land. Nor have they tried to acquire it."

Dann and others counter that years ago they did try to buy the Oasis from the railroad, but their offers were rejected. They say the alderman has underestimated community opposition, and they've collected signatures of opposition from 1,500 residents. The proposal is also opposed by the Friends of the Parks and the Openlands Project. Last month more than 450 residents turned up at a public hearing to denounce the plan; only 50 or so endorsed it. "Preckwinkle should be representing her constituency," says Dann. "There's an alternative: no rises. I can't understand why she's not representing what her community clearly wants."

The matter is now before the Plan Commission, a group of private citizens and city officials whose main function seems to be feigning attentiveness at public hearings while waiting for the mayor to tell them what to do. They have to decide whether this project would be an unreasonable intrusion on open space governed by the city's Lakefront Protection Ordinance. Their approval looks inevitable, as the project has won the support of Preckwinkle and the Department of Planning. "We understand the concerns of the gardeners," says Greg Longhini, spokesman for the department. "But it's private property that's zoned for a high rise. We have to make our decision within that context."

McLean says he'll landscape the complex to compensate for any trees that are destroyed. "A lot of the trees on the site are pieces of scrub," he says. "To some people a tree's a tree, but to others it's just wild. Most people in Hyde Park don't even know about these gardens, and now these gardeners want to make a big fuss about it? From the studies I've seen, Hyde Park is already overserved by parks."

If he doesn't win approval, McLean says he'll take the issue to court. "I'd go to court and win, and the planning department knows it. But I don't want it to come to that, and I don't think the city does either."

The Oasis supporters say they too are prepared to sue, a threat so feeble given their meager resources that it causes most observers to laugh. Short of that they'd like to devise some way in which the Oasis could be bought and preserved as open space.

Such a bold move would require Daley's blessing. Daley says he loves trees, yet his administration has endorsed development schemes that have killed hundreds of trees. "As far as I know, he's never turned down a project in order to save some trees," says Kaufman. "Now's his big chance to do what's right."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.

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