For most north-side residents, the decision to dump several hundred tons of concrete behind the city's largest public high school ranks among the stupidest ideas to come out of City Hall in a long time. To sum up, last month the Daley administration began allowing an influential out-of-town contractor to dump concrete in a lot a few feet behind Lane Tech's running track and football stadium and across the street from Clark Park, a strip of grass and trees that winds along the North Branch of the Chicago River. If the contractor gets his way, the concrete will be ground into gravel in a contraption that's already on-site, a "jaw crusher."
It's all a small part of the multi-billion-dollar Kennedy Expressway reconstruction project. But it looms large for the local residents. As they see it, any passerby lucky enough to avoid the noise and fumes of the horde of trucks--at least 50 come and go every hour--will gag on the dust from the concrete. "We've been hit by a steamroller," says Bob Wulkowicz, who lives near the site. "And we never saw it coming."
On February 28 Wulkowicz received a phone call from his wife, Martha Murphy, who was in tears because workmen were cutting down the six-acre patch of woods just behind the stadium, on the 2500 block of North Rockwell. "I drove over and said, 'You can't cut down these trees,'" says Wulkowicz, a passionate arborist. "They said they had the right to do whatever they wanted because it was their property. The foreman--this arrogant little twit--said, 'I have the permits I need, and I ain't showin' you nothin'.'"
Wulkowicz rushed home and started calling reporters, bureaucrats, politicians--anyone who might help. "No one thought it was a big deal. I called the people in charge of the city's program for preserving trees. I told them hundreds of trees are getting destroyed, including cottonwoods, oaks, poplars, and hackberries. I said they would never let something like this happen in the suburbs. In return I got a lecture about private property rights."
On March 2 Tribune reporter Patrick Reardon came to the rescue with a moving account of the slaughter of the trees, and by day's end several TV stations were airing footage of buzzing saws and falling trees. Suddenly the story was too hot for Mayor Daley's flak catchers to ignore. "When it was just Wulkowicz, it wasn't a problem," says a City Hall staffer. "But now it was. We didn't want Daley to look like he didn't care about trees."
It soon became apparent that Plote, Inc., from Elgin, was clearing the land to install a "pavement recycling facility." All spring, summer, and fall--or until the Kennedy was repaved--Plote intended to have trucks rumbling up Addison and onto Rockwell, loaded with concrete ripped up from the Kennedy between Logan Square and the Edens junction. And all that time Plote intended to have the jaw crusher hammering, billowing clouds of dust from morning until night.
Wulkowicz had observed similar operations, and what he'd seen made him sick. "The noise and stench are bad, but the dust is worse. It hangs in the air, coating everything."
The facility required a permit from the city's Department of Environment, and a land-use variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals. And in the early days of March Plote officials seemed well on their way to winning both. They had the support of the local aldermen, Eugene Schulter (47th) and Richard Mell (33rd), who'd lobbied environment commissioner Henry Henderson on Plote's behalf. All this maneuvering went on without any public notification.
Indeed, Schulter and Mell seemed surprised when residents started to complain. "I kept saying, 'But what about the high school?'" says Wulkowicz. "There are 4,000 kids at Lane. What happens when they have to breathe all the dust, especially the kids with asthma? No one thought about the kids. They were invisible."
On March 5 Plote began dumping concrete on the site without a permit. When Henderson found out he drove to the site and demanded that they stop. "They told me to get lost," says Henderson. "I told them that I was the commissioner, and they said that they had the aldermen's permission." Henderson returned with five squad cars, but the work crew still defied him. "They kept saying something about the aldermen. Finally one of the cops says, 'You don't get it, buddy. He's the commissioner, and you don't have the permit.' Then they stopped."
Three days later Henderson met with Plote officials, who were a bit more respectful. According to Henderson, they said this was their first project in Chicago and they didn't really know the lay of the land. They said they were relying on Schulter and Mell to handle permits. They pleaded for understanding. A lot was at stake. Without that site they'd have nowhere to recycle, and construction would have to stop. For the sake of the Kennedy, Henderson would have to grant them the permit.
Henderson bought their argument. "I couldn't shut down the Kennedy. People would be outraged by the inconvenience, and they would blame our regulatory ordinance." He awarded Plote a temporary permit, allowing the company to dump, but not crush, on the site until April 14, giving his department and the Zoning Board of Appeals more time to investigate the impact of the project on the surrounding area.
By now Wulkowicz had been joined by Peter Donoghue, Bill Donahue, James Parker, William and Vivian Rankin, and other residents, as well as officials from Lane Tech, the Chicago Lung Association, Friends of the Parks, and several environmental groups. Most feel Henderson was duped. "Plote will come back in three weeks, having stuffed the site with tons of concrete, and say, 'Henry, there's too much stuff to move. We have to crush it here,'" says Donoghue. "Then Henry will tell us, 'Guys, I can't stop the Kennedy.'"
Donoghue points out that Plote has facilities in Elgin and Hoffman Estates--why not make it recycle there? "It might cost Plote more money in terms of truck travel, but that's not our problem. We shouldn't be made to pay a high price for their profit. They never had any guarantee that they could dump on this site. They just assumed it."
Wulkowicz wanted Henderson to force Plote to do its recycling in Elgin. "Henry said the trucks driving back and forth would create too much pollution," says Wulkowicz. "Great! Let the exhaust accumulate in Chicago. Plote dumps its crap, leaves hacking kids, filthy streets, an unusable park--and goes back to Elgin."
For a while Schulter, Mell, and Plote tried all sorts of tactics to win over the opposition, even guilt. "Schulter says, 'Peter, you don't want to shut down the Kennedy?'" says Donoghue. "I said, 'Gene, this is in my hands? I'm now running the city?' Mell tells me, 'Ah, [Clark Park] stinks anyway. I wouldn't let my kids go there 'cause of the fecal smell.' I said, 'Dick, take it easy. I use that park--that's all I've got.'"
On March 18 both sides came downtown for the Zoning Board of Appeals hearing. "It was a rude awakening into how inconsequential we are," says Donahue. "The ZBA let us sit for two hours of other zoning matters. They gave no indication of when our case would be heard. Then the Plote side came in--all these lawyers in pin-striped suits. I thought, Uh-oh, we're outclassed."
As the hearing started, a lawyer named Anne Burke--wife of Alderman Ed Burke (14th), one of Daley's key council allies--took a seat with the Plote team. "She sat for the whole meeting and didn't say a word," says Donahue. "They brought her there to make a statement: Hey, ZBA, we have clout."
The ZBA listened as Plote executive Greg Rohlf explained how recycling concrete was good for the environment. That no more than eight trucks would visit the site each hour. That they'd regularly wash the dust away. That there was no more appropriate site for the operation, that it would not depreciate the value of nearby property or harm the surrounding environment.
About two hours later the opponents finally got their chance. "The ZBA chairman [Joseph Spingola] said, 'Who's your spokesman?'" says Donahue. "We looked at each other. Someone said, 'We have no spokesman.' Spingola said, 'You're out of order.' The guy said, 'But we've been waiting for four hours. We all want to speak.' Spingola said, 'I told you, you're out of order.'"
Spingola finally allowed them about 15 minutes to register their opposition. Then Schulter, starting to flip-flop, said he had no comment about the facility. Mell, standing tough, said the Kennedy construction project is already dirty and noisy, so why worry about a few more trucks? After the meeting the ZBA voted to grant the land-use variance so long as Plote posted a $1 million bond as a guarantee it would clean up the site after vacating it. "What really hurt is that Mell and Schulter deserted us," says Donoghue. "I think they wanted to show Plote that they were big shots who knew how to get things done in City Hall."
The opposition's last hope was a March 28 hearing sponsored by the Department of Environment. "The way decisions are made is that they weigh the clout and money of a Plote against the sheer volume of votes," says Wulkowicz. "There should be a political price to pay for stupid decisions."
Roughly 300 people attended, and about 70 spoke--all against the facility. "You don't have the right to put a death sentence on my asthmatic child," thundered the mother of a Lane Tech student.
James Parker showed a videotape of Plote's trucks rumbling through stop signs, diesel fuel spewing from their exhaust pipes, dust flying off their loads. The workers didn't wet down the dust that spewed from the trucks, and many more than eight trucks entered the site each hour. "One tape says it all," said Parker.
Schulter completed his flip-flop, saying, "Under no circumstance will I find this an acceptable activity. The young people should not have to tackle an obstacle of toxic diesel fumes on their way to school." Later he denied that he'd ever encouraged the project. "One might say, 'Well, Gene, why didn't you make a statement at the Zoning Board of Appeals?' And the reason I didn't do that is that I felt that no matter what I might say it would fall on deaf ears." (Mell would not return phone calls.)
Most observers believe City Hall will also get the message. "I think you'll see an announcement from Henderson and Plote that, miracle of miracles, they have discovered another site," says a City Hall source. "They have to protect the mayor."
But the opponents aren't declaring victory. "The trucks keep dropping their concrete," says Donoghue. "Their workers are getting hostile. The other day one of them yelled at me, 'Timber!' I hope the city doesn't come to us with a deal where they let Plote crush what's there. I can't believe they think we'll buy that. I can't believe they think we're that dumb."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo?Charles Eshelman.