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..And Secret Keepers 

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By Elana Seifert

Last week a group of West Town shopkeepers dodged a bullet when the city shelved a plan to bulldoze their businesses to make way for a parking lot. Yet the merchants hardly feel relieved. They're claiming some people still want them out.

Their worries began in late October, when a letter from the law firm Earl L. Neal & Associates was sent to owners and tenants of buildings located on the 1600 block of West Chicago. The letter said the city "recently designated numerous parcels of real property in the vicinity of Chicago and Ashland avenues as probably necessary for a municipal project." The business owners already knew that the city wanted to relocate some offices to the vacant Goldblatt's building at 1615 W. Chicago, and now parcels around that building were being selected to provide a parking lot for the soon-to-arrive municipal employees. The letter asked store owners to allow inspectors onto the premises to determine "the fair market value of [each] property."

Ironically, one year ago Goldblatt's itself faced the wrecking ball. Delray Farms planned to raze the building for a grocery store, but various community groups rallied to save the 83-year-old structure. When the mayor's office intervened, the preservationists emerged victorious. In March the city announced it would purchase the Goldblatt's building, and in July it approved a $30 million renovation project to turn the former department store into government offices. Construction will begin early next year.

But the good news for preservationists seemed like a bad omen for many area stores. "When the city stepped in to save Goldblatt's, some people thought that was the end of the controversy, but we knew it was just the beginning," says Mary Ritchie, executive director of the Chicago Avenue Business Association, an organization representing 110 member retailers on Chicago Avenue between Ogden and Western.

Merchants say their fears were confirmed as early as a July 9 meeting of the Eckhart Park Community Council. First Ward alderman Jesse Granato told the group that the city would raze buildings near the Goldblatt's building to provide parking for municipal employees. Then, as soon as residents began to ask questions, Granato recanted, saying the plan was only tentative. The debate subsided when the city signed a lease on the C.G. Parking garage at 824 N. Marshfield.

Yet members of the Chicago Avenue Business Association remained suspicious. Ritchie began to send letters to city officials, and in August she received a response from Christopher Hill, commissioner of the Department of Planning and Development. Hill wrote that the commission would keep Ritchie "informed when the City has completed its assessment of staff parking needs," assuring her that he would personally "work with the Business Association and the community to develop a parking strategy [that] is compatible for local merchants."

In the months that followed, Ritchie says, "they told us nothing." The silence continued, even after a September 13 meeting of the city's Public Building Commission resulted in a resolution amending the Goldblatt's project to include property on both sides of the building--from 1603 to 1607 and from 1639 to 1655 W. Chicago. Several other parcels as far south as Huron were added "to provide additional parking" for the project.

Then came the October 29 letter. Businesses along Chicago Avenue believed they were in imminent danger--they appealed to City Hall, asked customers to sign petitions, and began to plot their next move. Other local groups started to respond. West Town United, an umbrella organization representing 20 community groups, wrote a letter to the Public Building Commission to request a hearing. Last Thursday a representative from the mayor's office phoned West Town United to say the deal was off. According to mayoral assistant Terry Teele, Mayor Daley has instructed Ben Reyes, executive director of the Public Building Commission, to forgo the acquisition of the stores on Chicago Avenue, and last week Neal & Associates was instructed to begin negotiations with C.G. Parking for the possible sale of the garage.

Teele says the acquisition of Chicago Avenue businesses was only "one of a number of options" when the letters were sent out. The city had also looked at other locations for parking, including property on the northeast corner of Paulina and Superior, where Saint Anne's Revival Church has remained vacant for 15 years. "It's always a last resort to go with a church," Teele says. "But we've since learned that it's on the market, so that's another option now." The purpose of the October letter, he explains, was "to work up a budget and see what was possible." As for the September 13 resolution passed by the Public Building Commission, Teele promises it won't be put before the City Council.

Now that the city has apparently backed down, why is the business community around Chicago and Ashland still worried?

"This is deja vu," says Ritchie. "This is what happened in July. We can have a more positive outlook, but who knows for how long? Something's coming, and it's only a matter of time before it hits us."

Leonides Polanco, who owns the Gold Palace jewelry store at 1647 W. Chicago, has refused to remove petitions calling for the city to abandon its demolition plans. "I do not trust the city," says Polanco, who only learned about its change of heart from another merchant. "I'd like to know if that's the truth. We need to see a letter, something approved by the mayor.

"I've got too much to lose," Polanco says. "This little business is my life. I'd like to see this settled so I can get it out of my head."

Chicago Avenue Business Association president Phil Friedman, who owns Chicago Avenue Discount at 1637 W. Chicago, says he also feels terrorized, and he remains fatalistic. "What's the difference if [we] get it in writing?" he asks. "They can put a resolution through in a minute if they want to."

Won Yu owns the building at 1647 W. Chicago, where he has operated Warner's Department Store for the last 15 years. Though he's heard about the city's reprieve, he remains guarded. "When I talked to a lawyer [at Neal & Associates] he said nothing is decided yet, so I'm still waiting to see what happens," he says. "I don't know what is going on--everything is rumors."

Ritchie says the merchants' association is still pushing for an official guarantee from the city that Chicago Avenue businesses will be spared. She continues to be surprised that plans were made without community input. "I'd love for the city to come to us with their ideas and say, 'What do you think of this?' But this secrecy is driving me crazy. I don't know where this is coming from--put it on paper, push it through, and tell the community later. That's how things are being done."

Others share her concerns. Alison Meares, president of West Town United's board of directors, has been told that the city will not hold public hearings on the matter.

"We've been told that, quote unquote, urban planners and other experts are working on this and that once the plans are determined it will be put to the community for comment," Meares says. "But as far as we're concerned, at that point it's a done deal.

"The fact that we've had business owners, and in some cases residents, who have gotten notices from the city asking for appraisals is a clear indication to us that the city has designs on these properties. And even if it's true that the city is not going to take them, at the very least they've created anxiety and discomfort in this community, and they need to respond to that."

Ritchie wonders if the Chicago Avenue Business Association is being punished for supporting Delray Farms's plan to level the Goldblatt's building. "We're getting our wrists slapped for not being on the right side in the Goldblatt's debate," she says.

Area resident Margie Isaacson says the merchants only have themselves to blame. Isaacson, a member of the East Village Association, which spearheaded the effort to save Goldblatt's, says, "CABA had the opportunity last year to work with the community on a compromise and chose not to, and now it's chickens coming home to roost."

Phil Friedman thinks the plan to eliminate businesses on Chicago Avenue is masking baser motivations. "My own feeling is that it's racial," he says. "Who of us on this street don't rely on some racial minority for our business--whether it's blacks or Hispanics. The developers moving into the neighborhood aren't looking for that--they're looking for the opposite. It's strange that, at a time when the city is hiring more minorities than ever before in history, the city wants to change things racially. This is what the people who wanted to see the Goldblatt's building saved were after."

The resident groups that worked closely with the city to save Goldblatt's have made no secret of their desire to upgrade the Chicago Avenue business district. But Gladys Alcazar, president of the East Village Association, denies that race is an issue, calling Friedman's assertion "an affront to me as a Latina."

"They're very antigentrification," Alcazar says, "and that segregates communities. You can have diversity and a good retail mix. This is not what Mr. Friedman says it's about. It's about giving people in the neighborhood what they want. Having 30 dollar stores is not what most people in this neighborhood want. If you want to purchase flowers or a book or a CD, you can't do it. I would love to shop on Chicago Avenue, but currently there are no goods or services I can shop for."

"They won't get off that," says Ritchie, who's quick to name one florist and three stores that sell CDs in the district. Of the 250 businesses located on Chicago Avenue between Ogden and Western, she says, "exactly 6 are dollar stores. These are small minds. I get the feeling they don't get out to check out the avenue."

Allen Kaleta, business committee chairman for the 13th District's community policing program, makes no bones about it--he'd like to see new stores on Chicago Avenue. He says most of the merchants who received the letter from Neal & Associates "give the strip a Maxwell Street atmosphere. That's not what the community wants, and that's not what the community needs.

"We always get back to the gentrification thing, with people saying, 'You won't be able to get a taco anymore on Chicago Avenue.' Look, I don't want to see that. But if we do have a taco stand on Chicago Avenue, I want it to be clean. The city doesn't want to turn it into Wicker Park. But people from the neighborhood aren't shopping there. People come up from the projects on Lake Street to shop there. The businesses are not merchandising products for the new people moving into the community. They're doing business as if it were the neighborhood of ten years ago."

Kaleta points to efforts he's made with his own business, Casey's Liquors, which has been located at 1444 W. Chicago for 22 years. "I was the first one west of the expressway to get a Cash Station. People from the neighborhood go to the North Clybourn area to shop and to Jewel on Division. Very few of them buy any clothing in that area. Or shoes. [They go] over to Chernin's on 22nd and Roosevelt Road or Lincoln Park. There's only two kinds of shoes you can get on Chicago Avenue--gym shoes and cowboy boots. No Rockports anywhere in the neighborhood. No wing tips."

Phil Friedman laughs when he's told that his business isn't serving the community. "People come to my place because they can get bargains," he says. "Even yuppies want bargains."

Ritchie says she'd also like to see "a better retail mix" on Chicago Avenue. But she feels the city owes some allegiance to longtime neighborhood fixtures. "We're serving a market that we know is here and that we know isn't going anywhere. We may not have Banana Republic or the Gap, but we're here and we're generating revenue. It simply doesn't make sense for the city to want us to disappear." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Chicago Avenue Business Association members Phil Friedman, Mary Ritchie, Leonides Polanco, and Jung Song.

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