Early one morning in late February, David Winner and Virginia Sorrells were sitting in Caribou Coffee on North Broadway, a block and a half from the Jane Addams Center, poring over a two-inch-thick binder. Winner and Sorrells are two of the founding members of Friends of Jane Addams Center, and the binder was the Hull House Association's just-released Request for Proposals packet, official information about the center compiled for prospective buyers. They were scanning through it page by page, looking for a glimpse into how Hull House has pitched the building so far. The reason? If they can find a buyer by March 26, maybe Lakeview won't lose a community center.
Friends of Jane Addams Center formed last summer in an attempt to keep the former settlement house at 3212 N. Broadway from being sold. FOJAC was interested in protecting the building and assumed that any new owner would probably raze it. Even back then it looked like a losing battle: the building needed repairs that the Hull House Association claimed it couldn't afford to make, and Hull House CEO Clarence Wood argued that the social-service programs offered there might better serve a less gentrified neighborhood.
FOJAC's initial goal was to block the sale of the building outright, but when that didn't attract strong enough support among organizations currently using the center, the group took a different approach. It decided to pitch the idea of buying the building to other social-service organizations, ones that might want to leave the building up so that they can run their own programs there. In a December meeting with Wood (also present were 44th Ward alderman Bernie Hansen and a delegate from U.S. representative Jan Schakowsky's office), FOJAC got Hull House's stamp of approval. The association agreed to keep the building off the block--but only for three months.
A letter of agreement sent to Winner a few weeks after the meeting reads, "Hull House will agree to delay the sale of the property until March 26, 2002....to allow you to explore purchasing the building and other possible alternatives." It goes on to say that Hull House will give FOJAC right of first refusal on buying the property itself, as long as its offer is at fair market value.
"In exchange for these concessions," the agreement continues, "FOJAC agrees that if it is unable to secure sufficient funds...or to nominate a qualified purchaser on or before March 26, 2002, it will withdraw its opposition to the sale of the building and withdraw its support of any effort to down zone the property."
There was the catch. The down-zoning clause refers to a push initiated last summer by the Belmont Harbor Neighbors (and supported by Hansen as well as a number of other community groups) to limit the square footage of any new construction, which would reduce the resale value of the property, perhaps by as much as $1 million.
FOJAC has contacted some of the largest charitable agencies in the city about purchasing the property--the YMCA, Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services of Illinois, the Jewish Community Centers. But none has taken the group up on its offer. "The most common problem with the groups we've approached so far is that they just don't have the funding to take something like this on," says Winner. "They all keep saying that someone needs to save it--it just can't be them." He claims the group has a shortlist of possible buyers yet to contact, though he doesn't want to muck up negotiations by disclosing any names.
As time runs out, "we're just trying to find a benevolent group that can keep the building accessible to the community," says Sorrells. "Grassroots is always nice, but grass takes a long time to root. We're just taking every opportunity to get the word out and see if there isn't a savior out there somewhere that we haven't thought about."