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Park 'n' lot: Tribune proposal makes hysterical bedfellows

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The political tussle in the drafty old church auditorium was bizarre, bitter, and ironic even by standards of the 46th Ward.

On one side of the room stood 100 or so angry Uptown residents, led by aldermanic hopeful Mike Quigley, demanding that the city drop its plans to help the Cubs build a 200-car parking lot behind their apartments and houses.

Lined up behind a table at the front was a curious alliance of Daley administration officials, a Tribune Company boss, and local alderman Helen Shiller, one of the City Council's most vociferous antiadministration independents.

For two hours, Shiller and her allies had held out for the parking lot, generating a barrage of boos and catcalls, a position that might lose Shiller votes in the February 26 aldermanic election. By the meeting's end it was clear that the parking-lot deal--a plan that includes the building of a small park--was all but done, though the fallout is hardly over. Quigley left, vowing to make the issue a cornerstone of his campaign against Shiller.

He has one problem, however. Mayor Daley, whose support Quigley expects, supports the project; Jane Byrne, the mayor's chief opponent, does not--and she showed up at the meeting to blast the mayor's stand. As a result, Shiller and Daley find themselves allied against Quigley and Byrne on one of the ward's most volatile issues. All of which leaves most ward observers, even the veterans, scratching their heads.

"I see a lot of irony in this," says Shiller. "Who would have believed that I would be allied with Daley against Quigley and Byrne? It's hysterical. But I'm just trying to do what's best for my ward."

"She has voted against Daley more than any other alderman," says Quigley, "and then she tries to paint me as 'go-along Quigley.' Now on an important issue to our community she's on the same side as the mayor, and they're both wrong. It shows that when Daley is wrong, I'm against it."

At issue is the bumpy, unpaved, weed-filled alley that runs north and south for about a quarter mile by the el tracks from Montrose Avenue to Irving Park Road, along Graceland Cemetery. In the last few years, the alley has been a dumping ground for cars, garbage, and even, so residents say, a dead body or two.

Over the years nearby residents have demanded that the city seek federal, state, or foundation funds to build a park there--or at the very least clean the alley once in a while. Yet the city has done nothing.

"It's a disgrace that the city tolerates this," says Erma Tranter, executive director of Friends of the Parks, a watchdog group. "There are creative things that can be done with this land."

Then, out of the blue, came the Tribune Company with an offer to help build a park on the north end of the alley if the city approves a parking lot for the south end. City officials rejoiced at the offer, offering to make long-overdue sewer repairs and even repave the alley that would remain under and to the east of the el tracks.

But the community was not so receptive.

"First of all, we don't need more Cubs traffic in this neighborhood," says Quigley. "The Cubs should have fans park their cars near the expressways and then bus-shuttle them in. Secondly, no one can convince me that 200-plus cars as part of a park is a park. And finally, it's offensive to say 'Go along with the Tribune and we'll fix your sewer and alley.' The city should take care of our sewer and alley anyway."

Many residents uttered similar sentiments when the Tribune announced its offer in 1989. But Shiller said that to be fair she would solicit opinions from as many residents as possible. So members of Shiller's citizens' zoning-advisory group went door-to-door with a questionnaire.

"The result was that 189 people said they'd rather have a parking lot/park over what we have there now, and 120 said, 'No parking lot, let's hold out for the park,'" says Shiller. "I can't say the zoning group talked to every resident. But they tried to be as inclusive as possible."

Opponents of the parking lot, however, charged that they were not surveyed, and that the poll had been tipped to favor the parking lot.

"If the city and the existing alderman had spent the last four years investigating state funds, we'd be talking about having the first stage of the park completed," says Quigley. "Instead we're facing more cars."

That's a distortion, says Shiller, charging Quigley with exaggerating the ease of obtaining money for a park. "I looked for it, but there was no money for a park. . . . Until the Tribune came along, the city wasn't even talking about putting a park here."

Her position is repeated by city officials, who called the November 14 meeting to unveil their plan to resurface the alley, install a new sewer, plant trees and grass for the park, build a jogging path, renovate a nearby play lot, and create 200 parking slots. The cost would be $1.4 million, of which the Tribune would pay $825,000.

By the time of the meeting the project had a name ("Challenger Park"), a stated goal ("to reclaim the wild prairie in a symbolized way"), and its own self-promoting, city-financed brochure complete with garbled rhetoric intended to make a ribbon of grass next to some train tracks sound glamorous.

"The strong linearity of the park enhances the sense of infinite towards the south and north ends of the park," the report says. "This unboundness quality recalls the typical long view of the prairie between farmsteads and woodlots. The characteristics of the site and the fortuitous adjacency to Graceland Cemetery inspired the designer to transform this piece of land into a reclamation project."

Few residents at the meeting were impressed.

"This isn't a park, this is a parking lot," one man bellowed. "Don't cram a bunch of cars down our throats and expect us to say thanks just because the Tribune plants some flowers."

One man said the project would make the alley too narrow for access by fire trucks; another complained about pollution from the parking lot; and almost all the opponents agreed that the area is already overrun by Cubs traffic.

"If there is no parking," Tranter said, "people know that and will use the CTA. When we provide parking, they drive here."

Taking it all in was Leroy Whiting, the veteran mayoral assistant who chaired the meeting. He showed little emotion even when his old boss, Byrne, rose to speak.

"Leroy, I've known you for a very long time; as a matter of fact you once worked for me," she said. "You are sent out here to represent the mayor. I'd like you to tell the mayor what the people who live here are telling you. They don't want carbon monoxide, they want a park."

When Byrne finished, the crowd cheered. Then Shiller stepped forward. "With all due respect, mayor," she said, "the area behind the el was the worst it ever was when you were mayor."

The crowd hissed and booed.

"Show some respect," yelled a Shiller supporter.

"You don't get respect if you don't respect the community," someone responded.

"I have a question for Don Grenesko," a man yelled, referring to the Cubs official sitting at the front of the room. "How much are you going to put in Helen Shiller's coffers for ramming this down our throats?"

Whiting dismissed the question as unworthy of a response from Grenesko, who didn't look like he planned to answer it anyway. (Shiller says she has never received--and would never take--a campaign contribution from the Tribune Company or its affiliates.)

After folks calmed down a bit, someone asked if the city was willing to give a little, perhaps reducing the lot's size. Not really, Whiting responded, setting off another chorus of protests.

"You mean you dragged us here and you are not even going to take into consideration what we have to say?" one resident demanded.

"It still must be approved by the CTA and Park District boards," Whiting said. "I suspect you will have opportunities for further input at those forums."

"That response doesn't mean a thing," Tranter countered. "I'm concerned this will go through the hoops, even though so many people testified that there are problems."

Whiting did not respond to this accusation, although press materials distributed with the Challenger Park brochure are much more direct on this point. According to a press release, construction of the parking lot/park will begin in January of 1991 and be completed by May. "That sounds like a done deal to me," one resident complained.

Quigley contends nonetheless that the project can be upended by a lawsuit. "CTA board policy is that the lease of land under an el structure should be made available to adjacent property owners first," he says. "That didn't happen here. It's a constitutional question. This fight's not over yet."

On that point, Shiller agrees. "I suppose he will try to make this a big issue," Shiller says. "In the best of all worlds, I would have a park. But we explored that option, and there was no funding for the park.

"I don't have preconceived notions. Just because the Tribune supports it doesn't mean it's bad. I have only tried to do what the residents want. Our poll shows that most residents are ready to compromise if it means cleaning up the alley. Sometimes a compromise is the best you can expect."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.

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