Adecades-old charter gives the little-known Illinois Medical District Commission a virtual kingdom on the near west side. The commission is a low-profile seven-man board whose members are appointed by either the governor, the mayor, or the president of the Cook County Board. Founded in 1941, its original purpose was to oversee the construction needs of the area's major hospitals, Stroger (formerly Cook County Hospital), Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's, and the UIC Medical Center. But over the last decade the commissioners have expanded their mission, developing a master plan for transforming about 560 acres between Congress, 15th Street, Ashland, and Oakley into a mini-empire of research facilities, clinics, and labs.
It sounds like a good idea, a way to create jobs and generate revenue on the west side. But it's not always so good for the locals who find themselves in the way: the commission has eminent domain within its boundaries, which means you can't turn it down when it offers to buy your property. Seven years ago the commission displaced about 100 families living just south of Roosevelt Road with the aim of converting the land into a technology park.
Bill Lavicka, a west-side activist and resident, fought to save those homes just as he'd unsuccessfully fought to save the homes and businesses near Maxwell Street. He's been battling the commission since 1987, when he decided to build a memorial to Vietnam veterans on two adjoining vacant lots on the east side of the 800 block of South Oakley. Lavicka himself served in the war--he was a navy lieutenant--and he wanted to create a tranquil, gardenlike memorial where fellow vets could come to reflect. He already owned the lot to the north, but since the Illinois Medical District owned the land to the south he went to the commissioners and asked if they'd sell the lot to him. No go, they said: the commission can sell property only if it's to be used for medical purposes. "So I said, 'Why don't you donate the land?'" Lavicka says. "And they said, 'We can't transfer land unless it's for medical reasons.'"
Lavicka might be written off as a crank if he weren't a master restorationist who's rehabbed, rebuilt, or literally picked up and moved the houses of many of the area's wealthiest, most politically powerful residents, among them 25th Ward alderman Danny Solis, lobbyist and developer Oscar D'Angelo, and even Illinois Medical District Commission head Dr. Ken Schmidt. As a result they at least act cordially when he drops in on them at home or work, as he's apt to do.
He spent the next two years pleading with various planners and politicians to use their influence to change the regulations. Finally he convinced former Illinois attorney general Neil Hartigan to write a letter to Park Livingston, a former president of the commission, advising him that in Hartigan's opinion the commission did have the authority to set the vacant lot aside as a park, "which could then be used in conjunction with the adjacent memorial."
Two months later the commissioners relented and passed a resolution agreeing to "dedicate the Oakley Parcel on an interim basis as passive, open green space until such time as the Commission shall determine that such interim dedication and use of the Oakley Parcel shall be terminated." In 1989 Lavicka built his memorial--a series of bright red columns surrounding a tiled mosaic map of Vietnam. Over the years he's maintained it himself, trimming the grass and tending a garden, and the memorial's become a popular gathering spot for veterans and their families.
That's where things stood until 2001, when Lavicka decided he wanted to make the memorial permanent. "This was right after 9/11, and I was thinking about all the people who serve our country--not just soldiers, but firefighters and police," he says. "I was also thinking about what's going to happen to this memorial after I die. I'm 59. I have high blood pressure--I'm not going to last forever. I want this to outlive me. I asked the commission to turn the lot over to the memorial for perpetuity."
The commissioners turned him down, saying that it was illegal for them to permanently turn the lot over for a nonmedical use. "They told me they could swap some land," says Lavicka. "They said if I could find another lot to turn over to them, then they would give me their lot on Oakley. They told me I should go to the Park District and arrange for them to swap another lot for this lot. Well, that's ludicrous. I don't control the Park District. I'm having enough problems with the commission without bringing in the Park District."
Lavicka believes the commission could bend their governing regulations to accommodate his memorial--as they did when they built a shopping center on Illinois Medical District property at Ashland and Roosevelt. "If they wanted me to have the land they'd have their lawyers do what they have to do to get me the land," says Lavicka. "They told me it's worth $200,000. I said 17 years ago the land was going for $5,000. It's because of people like me that this neighborhood is what it is. What do they care about Vietnam vets?"
It eats at Lavicka--whose oldest son and nephew are currently serving in Iraq--to think that the memorial may be uprooted. "It's a sacred site," he says. "Tearing it up would be desecration."
In the commissioners' view Lavicka's being unreasonable--"a pain in the ass" Schmidt called Lavicka in a note he wrote to him. "We just don't have the authority to turn over this land," says Kenneth Scheiwe, the Illinois Medical District's chief counsel. Lavicka's pleaded his case to Solis, 11th Ward alderman James Balcer (who also served in Vietnam), and Governor Rod Blagojevich. But no one seems able or willing to get the commissioners to change their minds.
Lavicka's fight with Oscar D'Angelo over the matter has become vocal. D'Angelo, one of Mayor Daley's closest advisers, has tremendous behind-the-scenes influence on the near west side and has cultivated close ties with both the commission and UIC. "I'm an old friend of Oscar's, but I can't take it anymore," Lavicka says. "Oscar was at the last commission meeting--he's at all their meetings as far as I can see--but he didn't step in. He was sitting at the back of the room, and when I was done making my presentation I said, 'Oscar, you're evil.' And he said, 'When I wake up in the morning I don't see any horns or halos.' I said, 'Maybe you should look closer for the horns.'"
Late last month I went with Lavicka to visit the memorial. He stood in the center and pointed to a spot on the map of Vietnam. "I was stationed off of Hue," he said. From there we headed over to the Illinois Medical District Commission's headquarters, just a few blocks away, where Scheiwe and executive director Sam Pruett happened to be standing on the front steps smoking cigarettes. They greeted Lavicka with strained smiles.
"We don't have the authority to give you the land," Scheiwe repeated.
"What's one lot to you guys? You have over a thousand," Lavicka said.
"No, not that many," Pruett replied.
"How many then?"
Pruett shrugged and sucked his cigarette. An awkward silence passed, then he and Scheiwe stubbed out their cigarettes and went back into the commission's headquarters. Lavicka followed. On the wall near the door hung a large aerial photo of the area. He quickly counted the blocks of commission-owned vacant lots south of Roosevelt Road. "There's about 30 blocks, that's about 50 lots a block. That's 1,500 vacant lots right there," he said. "Maybe they should look at their own map."
We drove through the old neighborhood just south of Roosevelt, passing block after block of empty land. Then we stopped at the VA Hospital to meet Brenda Doherty, a psychiatric nurse who counsels veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. "Bill's memorial is crucial for a lot of vets," she said. "It's a healing place for them. They're not comfortable going to cemeteries. It serves a therapeutic use.
"This is such a small lot of land in a city filled with vacant lots," she went on. "I don't know why they can't find a reason to keep it for vets."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.