The fate of Logan Square's Mega Mall shopping center won't be on the ballot when voters in the 35th Ward select an alderman in the February 27 municipal elections. But it remains an important factor in the increasingly heated race between alderman Rey Colon, former alderman Vilma Colom, and challenger Miguel Sotomayor.
The mall, at 2500 N. Milwaukee, is an indoor bazaar where dozens of merchants sell everything from sneakers to jewelry; it caters to working-class Latino customers in an area that is still mostly Latino. For the last year or so Colon has supported an eminent domain suit that would force the mall's owner, Kyun Hee Park, to sell to the city, which would then take bids on the property. Many of Colon's old allies consider his stance an about-face from the one he took on gentrification and development during the last election, when he blasted Colom for selling out the community to upscale developers. In the eyes of a lot of people, including Colom, that position played a big part in his upset victory.
This time around the charges are flying in the other direction. "We have an alderman who loves condos," Colom says. "But we're condoed out--we're saturated with them. He'd condo all of Milwaukee Avenue if we let him."
Colon laughs at the accusation. "I think it's particularly funny coming from her," he says. "She upzoned all over the ward--that's partly why she lost the last election." He argues that, in contrast, he's pursued a course of "balanced development," downzoning in some cases and upzoning in others.
The Mega Mall battle is part of a larger struggle over the Milwaukee-Fullerton tax increment financing district. As most readers know by now, a TIF is a district the City Council creates to divert property taxes from the schools, parks, and other taxing bodies into a slush fund controlled by the mayor and the local alderman. Originally created with Colom's support in 2000, the Milwaukee-Fullerton TIF--which had accumulated about $9.2 million by 2005, the last year for which figures are available--was intended to spruce up the community by helping businesses along Milwaukee between Armitage and Fullerton.
After the TIF passed, the Logan Square Neighborhood Association asked that Colom and city planning officials create a citizens' advisory council to oversee it, urging that its funds go to support local schools and job creation, not upscale housing projects. Colom and the city ignored the request.
Once elected Colon set up a citizens' board on zoning issues. The first major expenditure from the TIF was used to develop upscale housing--not in Colon's ward, though under his watch. In 2005 the city expanded the Milwaukee-Fullerton TIF north to Belmont, where its boundary shot west to Tripp. It then spent $8.5 million in TIF funds to help convert the old Florsheim shoe factory on Belmont near Pulaski into a loft condominium complex--a project in the 31st Ward.
Colon admits that 31st Ward alderman Ray Suarez outfoxed him, using his clout to make sure the money got spent on his turf. But he's adamant that it won't happen again. He's pushing for TIF funds to be used in the Mega Mall project.
Originally Colom kept the shopping center out of the TIF district. "The TIF was supposed to be for businesses that were struggling," she explains. "And the Mega Mall wasn't." But when the city expanded the TIF in 2005, Colon insisted that the district also include the mall. He then asked the city to use its power of eminent domain to seize it.
Colon's proposal threw some of his old supporters off guard. He'd already dismayed many of them when he discounted the objections of citizens' advisory members to an upzoning one of his largest campaign contributors, developer Mark Fishman, would need to build about 100 upscale condos on Milwaukee near Central Park, roughly a half mile northwest of the mall.
But back in 2005 few residents defended the Mega Mall, an eyesore that was closed by city inspectors that summer after being cited for more than 100 building code violations. Now, however, many are resistant to giving Colon and the city a free hand to develop it. Last year Mark Heller, a local activist, submitted a proposal calling for a park and cultural center on the site. And in the November elections 72 percent of 35th Ward voters approved a nonbinding referendum to put a park there.
Colon vetoed the idea anyway. "I don't think Milwaukee Avenue is the appropriate place for a park," he says. "It's a commercial district." The city rejected Heller's proposal, and Colon says it's now entertaining two others--not yet unveiled--to build a grocery store or market.
In the meantime Park (who was unavailable for comment) has sunk about $2 million into fixing up the Mega Mall, and in November city building inspectors gave him the green light to reopen. Now business is bustling, which means the city faces another TIF-related conundrum: how can TIF dollars intended to preserve local businesses legitimately be used to drive local merchants out of business?
As with most TIF matters, the city's planning department has said it will follow the lead of the local alderman. Colon maintains that given the mall's past history of building violations, there's still reason to support eminent domain proceedings. "I think there's a better use for the land," he says. He favors a replacement market that would be operated by some of the merchants now working in the Mega Mall.
Colom says it's unfair to seize Park's property now that he's spent a couple million to get it up to code. "The owner fixed up the Mega Mall, and [Colon] is still going after him," she says. "To me, if someone meets the requirement, he should let them stay. This is not a communist country."
Sotomayor says that initially he supported a park on the site. "I even passed petitions for the park referendum," he says. But now "I find it hard to justify taking [Park's] personal property. I'd love to see public space there. But I would use the process of eminent domain for public use only, and only if the community wants it."
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Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Carlos J. Ortiz (mall), Jon Randolph (Colon), Robert Drea (Colom).