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Nothing but a Hole in the Ground

Rogers Park's much-hyped Gateway Mall remains a dream deferred.

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By Ben Joravsky

In the summer of 1997, Mayor Daley came to Rogers Park to turn over a ceremonial clump of dirt and proclaim the dawning of a new age for the intersection of Clark and Howard.

In the next 15 months that hole Daley dug expanded into a large excavation. But the Gateway, the development the mayor promised, is far from completion. Not a single new building has been finished, though most of the old ones were demolished, and construction has ground to a halt. The closest thing to a completed building, the bank on the west side of Clark Street, remains unlandscaped and surrounded by construction debris. The Pivot Point hairdressing school still stands, though the Gateway's developer vowed to tear it down. And the only flourishing business in the area remains My Place For?, the popular restaurant at 7545 N. Clark that was around years before the project was conceived.

The delays have been an embarrassment to the Daley administration as well as to local boosters and a subject of ceaseless speculation to Rogers Parkers, who wonder why the project's taking so long when other north-side malls pop up almost overnight.

"A day doesn't go by without someone asking me what's going on," says 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore. "But you have to understand--this is a tremendously complicated project."

Rogers Park desperately needs the Gateway, if only to reverse a long economic slide. Until the early 1980s this stretch of Howard Street opposite Evanston was a bustling strip containing offices, small retailers, taverns, and restaurants. The recession of the early 80s hammered it, however, and a series of proposed redevelopment projects failed to find start-up financing.

But in 1995 a developer named Rudy Mulder stepped forward with a plan to build a massive $60 million mall that would fill most of the area bounded by Clark, Howard, Birchwood, and the el tracks. Backed by Alderman Moore and DevCorp North, the local chamber of commerce, Mulder persuaded the Daley administration to make the area a tax increment financing (TIF) district, giving the city quick-take powers to seize and demolish existing property.

Of all the existing businesses, only My Place For? would continue in its original location under the plan. The others would be demolished and replaced by Dominick's, Cineplex Odeon, LaSalle Bank, and other well-known operations. With signed leases from Dominick's and Cineplex, Mulder said he was able to secure the financing previous projects had lacked.

On July 31, 1997, Daley came and dug the dirt. The Dominick's and multiscreen movie theater would be up and running within a year, Mulder said, adding that the project would create jobs for residents, taxes for the city, and boom times for Rogers Park.

But today the only business in the Gateway is My Place For?, whose owner, Steve Dorizas, sparked a revival by bringing in musical acts. The rest of the project's run into a series of frustrating delays.

For starters, neither Mulder nor the city had negotiated purchase agreements with all the property owners. Leo and Corrine Passage, the father and daughter who own the Pivot Point school at Clark and Howard, declared they didn't want to sell.

For several weeks the Passages engaged Mulder in a highly publicized fight, each side accusing the other of manipulating the media and bending the truth. But the Passages recognized that Mulder had the upper hand, since the city had the power to go to court and strip them of their property.

Yet the city still hasn't sought a court order to demolish the building. Observers wonder: Has the project changed? Will Pivot Point remain? Is the design scheme in flux? The Passages say they have no idea of the city's intentions.

"I don't know much of anything--certainly no one has contacted us directly and told us why there's these delays," says Corrine Passage. "We've been held hostage. We can't expand, we can't grow. They've been bad-mouthing us. And yet they don't move to take our property. We're just sitting here waiting like everyone else, wondering what's going on."

Rumors have swept Rogers Park that the retailers either pulled out or were never there to begin with. Not true, Moore and Mulder insist. "I have heard all those rumors and let me tell you, they're not true," says Moore. "The backing is as strong as ever. Dominick's and Cineplex are still on board. They have signed leases. I've seen those leases.

"It's just that this is a very complicated project. You really can't compare it to anything else. We have many existing businesses that need to be relocated. We have the CTA to deal with. This is not like plunking it down in the green fields of the suburbs or on public land that's easily transferred from one city entity to another."

Putting the deal together is like playing chess, says Moore, with each move predicated on the move before. For example, construction of the bank on the west side of Clark had to be delayed because Mulder only recently secured the land he needed to build a parking lot. "There's a little auto dealership just to the south of where the bank will go," says Jennifer LaSota, Mulder's vice president of construction. "It had to be purchased and closed down before I could begin demolition. And we can't build the parking lot until we tear it down."

The Dominick's probably will open next spring and the multiplex not until the year 2000, LaSota says. The Dominick's foundation has been dug but construction was held up in order to relocate a tire dealership that was in the way. Other delays, including the multiplex's, were caused by intense negotiations with the CTA. The project would rebuild the Howard Street el station and bus turnaround, requiring all bus traffic to be redirected.

"There have been a lot of bureaucratic delays working out things with the CTA," says Moore. "We also had delays because utility lines had to be rerouted. It's just unfair to compare this to any other project. Because this one is so much more complicated."

Many local critics aren't persuaded by such explanations. "It's goofy to blame these delays on the little guys whose land they want to take," says Fran Tobin, interim director of the Rogers Park Community Action Network, which has been critical of the project. "I know the guy who owns that auto shop. He asks me every day what's going on with the Gateway. No one knows.

"I think the main problem now is the same as from the start--there's some fundamental flaws in their vision. They're trying to create a cookie-cutter suburban-type development in a spot where it's not comfortable. They would have been better off had they taken an approach that worked with the existing buildings and property owners, instead of this grand scheme of pushing everyone out and starting all over."

Tobin and his allies have made it clear that they're searching for a candidate to challenge Moore in next February's aldermanic election. It's fairly obvious that whoever they find to run against the two-term incumbent will make an issue of the much-delayed mall.

But Moore says he remains proud of his efforts. "Sure, I anticipate that the delays will be an issue," he concedes. "But I think most people are very happy that the project is moving forward. They understand that there's going to be delays. I'll be the first to tell you that it's frustrating. But it will get done. These delays won't kill this project. It will get done." o

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

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