With its trees and drinking fountain the little triangle of land at the corner of Milwaukee and Augusta certainly looks like a park. The nearby residents who for years have sat in the shade of those trees assume it's a park. And nobody's paid any taxes on the land for years--the county lists it as tax-exempt, just as if it were a park.
But in March, Holly McDonald, who often walks by the lot, saw a notice the city had posted on a tree saying condos were going to be built there. "I just thought it was outrageous that the city would let someone demolish a park to build more condos," she says. "The area doesn't need more condos--they're going up all over the place. But it does need parks. There's no other green space on this stretch of Milwaukee."
McDonald repeatedly called the local alderman, the 27th Ward's Walter Burnett. When he didn't respond she sent him a letter. "This tiny oasis has ash, maple and flowering crabapple trees and is a humanizing bit of land in the area," she wrote on May 6. "So now, this home for birds and these old trees is going to be wiped out and built over in order that more wasteful condominiums in an already oversaturated real estate market can be built."
Burnett didn't respond to the letter either, but he says he supports the zoning change that recently zipped through the City Council allowing eight condos to be built. "The developers met with local residents," he says. "There were no objections." He also says the lot's an eyesore. "No one's been cutting the grass. It's neglected. You've got homeless people sleeping in it and cars illegally parked there."
He doesn't say why he hasn't gotten the owner to clean up the lot, but at least he knows that it isn't a park, that it's been privately owned for years. When I called the Cook County assessor's office they told me the current owner was the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority.
Joelle McGinnis, a toll authority spokesperson, says her agency doesn't own the land, and she can't understand why anyone would think it does, since there isn't a toll road anywhere near the intersection of Augusta and Milwaukee. "It's bizarre--very bizarre," she says. "We have never owned that property. The folks in our property office have been around long enough to remember if we owned property in the city, and they tell me we don't. I would think that if any state department owned it, it would be the Illinois Department of Transportation."
IDOT spokesperson Mike Claffey says his agency used to own the property, which it bought in 1957 when it was constructing the Kennedy Expressway. "It was land left over from the Kennedy construction," he says. "Obviously the state didn't need it for the highway."
Claffey says there wasn't much the state could do with the plot, which was wedged up against the Kennedy. As a goodwill gesture to the community, the state turned it into a park, putting in walkways and a water fountain, planting about a dozen trees, and doing regular maintenance.
By the mid-90s, Claffey says, IDOT had decided to sell the land. The city wasn't interested, so IDOT offered to lease it to local residents to maintain as a park. But the residents didn't want to sign a lease. Finally in 1999 IDOT sold the land for $355,000 to a trust fund. It's not clear who the owners were because they're not listed on the deed. "We really had nothing more to do with the property after we sold it," says Claffey.
At that point the land should have been put on the county's tax rolls. It wasn't, and nobody put it on the rolls in 2003, when it was bought by MCM Properties, the real estate and development company that plans to build the condos. According to Frank Thoke, an MCM spokesperson, his firm bought the land from William Kritt, another local developer. Kritt died in March, and it's not clear how long he owned the property.
At any rate, Maura Kownacki, a spokesperson for the assessor's office, says it's not her agency's fault that the lot's still listed as tax-exempt. "The Illinois State Toll Highway Authority has filed annual affidavits for the past two years indicating that they owned the property," she says. "They did not indicate for either year that the property has been sold, leased, or transferred." Moreover, she says, "The buyer of an exempt piece of property must notify the assessor's office by certified mail within 30 days of any transfer of exempt property. We have no record of any notification."
Alderman Burnett says he didn't know the county was treating the land as tax-exempt. MCM's Thoke and Gabriels say they didn't know it was tax-exempt either. But they assume the assessor's office will update its records once the property's developed, and presumably someone will then have to pay the back taxes.
"It's all very confusing," says Holly McDonald, who's been pleading with the city to let the land remain a park. "Obviously one hand of government doesn't know what the other's doing. It seems like developers have been getting big breaks with this land since they bought it. Now they get to turn it into condos--that's the biggest break of all."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rob Warner.