Fighting for His Wife | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Fighting for His Wife 

Bill Lavicka has locked horns with UIC before, but this time it's personal.

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For most of his life Bill Lavicka paid little attention to the parking needs of the handicapped. Then one day in January his wife, Alys, who has Parkinson's disease, fell in a parking lot at the University of Illinois at Chicago and broke her nose. That's when he launched a crusade to force the university to set aside affordable, accessible parking spaces close to its main classrooms. "The way they treat disabled students like my wife, they're saying, 'Don't come--we don't want you,'" he says. "They might as well put up a sign that says Disabled Get Lost!"

This isn't the first time Lavicka, a building rehabber who owns property all over the near west side, has waged an uphill fight against UIC. He was also at the forefront of the doomed effort to save what was left of the old Maxwell Street Market before the university demolished it to build more parking lots and dorms. But this fight is personal. His wife, he says, "has a progressive condition, and it's been getting worse. She's been having trouble keeping her balance."

The two met more than 30 years ago. "Bill was a young naval officer just out of Vietnam," says Alys Lavicka. "We met in a shipyard in California where I worked as a secretary to support myself." Eventually they got married, moved to Chicago, and settled in a turn-of-the-century town house on Jackson that Bill restored. While he built his real estate and rehabbing business, she raised their three children, kept his company's books, and was a leader at the local public school. "Alys was in that school every day while our children were there," says Bill. "She was a major presence."

As the Parkinson's got worse, Alys was determined to stay engaged and started taking undergraduate history courses at UIC. "Up until February or so, she could still drive well," says Bill. "Her mind's as sharp as ever--why not?"

During the fall semester she had no trouble getting to and from her classroom. But in January the treks grew more difficult as her condition deteriorated. Places in the lots were also becoming sparse because the city was pulling meters off the street, forcing people to park in the lots. "It seemed like the main lot, what the university calls 'Lot 4,' which is on Halsted near Harrison, was always filled," says Bill. "She had to park in other lots that were further from her class."

On January 14 she parked in the garage at Harrison and Morgan, near the university's basketball arena. It was while walking from that garage to her class, rushing because she'd had to park so far away, that she fell and broke her nose. "A student helped pick me up," she says. "They took me to a hospital, and I was released that day."

Upset that she had fallen, Bill began calling people at the university. He says, "I wanted to know why she had to drive around looking for parking when there are parking lots closer to her classroom." He discovered that UIC had what he calls "absurd" parking policies. There were, for instance, handicapped spaces in the Halsted lot. "But you can't get at them unless you have a parking pass," he says. "There's about 1,000 spaces in that lot, but after about 400 cars come in, they close the lot to day visitors."

That meant drivers could gain access to the lot only if they had a semester or monthly pass. "After about nine in the morning most drivers can't get in," says Lavicka. "So you have accessible parking for disabled people--only the disabled can't get at it unless they have a pass. And a pass costs 200 bucks a semester or 600 bucks a year, which is more than a lot of disabled people can afford. Or they may not want to pay it if they're only part-time students, like my wife."

There was another, relatively small lot on Polk next to the administration building, but it wasn't open to the public. "I call that the eyeball lot," says Lavicka. "The gate's activated by an eyeball that reads the eyeball that's implanted in a driver's car. That way the driver doesn't have to get out of his car or press a button or swipe a card or roll down his window. But you only get an eyeball if you're a big shot, like Chancellor [Sylvia] Manning." The gate could also be opened with a special card given out at the university's discretion.

There wasn't much street parking because the city had removed almost all of the meters from Halsted, Roosevelt, Harrison, and other streets around the campus. "I think they're doing away with on-street parking to make you park in the university's lots and garages," says Lavicka. "Think about it. They're limiting access to public streets to make you park in private lots where you have to pay--what?--$8 a day. That's a racket."

In the weeks that followed his wife's accident, Lavicka pressed the matter in phone calls and meetings with various lower-level UIC officials. "They were absolutely unhelpful," he says. "No matter what I said, they said it couldn't be done. I said, 'I have a perfect solution. Put some meters up on Halsted and set them aside for the handicapped.' They said they can't do it because the city controls parking on the street. That's outrageous. You can't tell me that an institution as powerful as UIC has no control over street parking on campus."

On January 19 he wrote a note to Chancellor Manning. "Please find a picture of my disabled wife, Alys, a UIC student who broke her nose," he said. "[She] has been unable to attend class because she is and was denied parking in the UIC Lot 4 on Halsted. It would appear that all daily handicapped parkers are similarly denied. This outrage is apparently the policy of your staff."

On January 31, Stanton Delaney, vice chancellor for administration, replied. By then Lavicka had purchased a monthly parking pass to Lot 4, a fact that Delaney noted in his letter. "[Your wife] was assigned her lot of choice, Lot 4, which is located on Halsted and Taylor," he wrote. "In regard to your second concern, prohibited parking on Halsted and other city streets, you should be aware that the City of Chicago regulates parking on city streets."

Unsatisfied with Delaney's response, Lavicka took the matter to City Hall. "I talked to an official with the city's parking bureau," he says. "He told me what I had already figured, that the state--in this case the university-- controls parking issues on streets around UIC. So here I had the state saying it's the city and the city saying it's the state."

Increasingly frustrated, Lavicka went to the Mayor's Office for People With Disabilities. "All you need to know about that office is that it's located in the most inaccessible part of City Hall," he says. "It's on the 11th floor at the end of the hall. What a city. They basically told me there was nothing they could do."

So Lavicka went directly to Manning. "I walked over to her office unannounced, but she wasn't in," he says. "I just sort of made a nuisance of myself."

The chancellor's staff directed him to Diane Hodges, UIC's associate vice chancellor for administration, and he met with her in early February. "It didn't do much good," he says. "She's what I call an energy displacer. You go to her and blow energy, and they think it's going to go away."

At that meeting Hodges made what university officials consider their final offer: access to the eyeball parking lot. "They gave me a card that allowed us to use the parking lot that only big shots get to use," says Lavicka. From the university's perspective, this gesture showed that they'd been more than generous to the Lavickas. Not only had they taken the time to listen to their gripes, but they'd given them a special deal.

But Lavicka still wasn't satisfied. "I know, I know. I should be happy with the eyeball parking," he concedes. "But that's no solution. You know what it is? It's another way--the Chicago way-- to get rid of the problem. Someone's causing a fuss, so what do you do? You take him out into the hallway and make a deal so he shuts up and goes away. But the problem remains. What about all the other disabled people who can't park in that special lot? What about everyone else who can't afford the parking pass? There must be, I don't know, 500 people in the university with accessibility problems. It occurred to me that maybe the university doesn't want to be bothered with people who can't walk across the campus to get to their classroom. Disabled people shouldn't have to beg for parking."

So Lavicka is pressing on. One day last week he drove around campus, pointing out the lack of parking on the main streets, the expensive garages, the crowded lotsâ even the eyeball lot. He got the gate to rise by swiping his special card. He parked and got out just as a Mercedes van pulled in. "I wonder if that's the chancellor," he said.

It wasn't. But then, as if on cue, a distinguished-looking woman in heels approached from the opposite direction.

"Excuse me," Lavicka called out. "Chancellor Manning--is that you?"

The woman stopped, turned, and smiled. "Yes," she said.

"Hi," he said, extending his hand. "I'm Bill Lavicka."

And then they got into it. He demanded more accessible parking. She said there was already enough.

At first Manning made her points with a smile, but as the exchange went on her face grew stern. "Bill," she said, "I'm not going to stand on this corner and negotiate with you."

"My wife broke her nose walking from your lot."

"I have to go to lunch."

"You can solve this problem by opening parking lanes on Halsted."

"We don't control parking on Halsted."

"Come on, Sylvia, are you saying the university doesn't control parking?"

"I have to go to lunch."

"I have a lawyer."

Her eyes narrowed. "If you have a lawyer you should be talking to legal counsel, not me," she said and walked away.

As far as the university is concerned, the matter's closed. "We feel we're in compliance with all aspects of the law," says Bill Burton, a campus spokesman. But Lavicka says he's not through. "It's probably costing them $20,000 in bureaucratic salaries to fight this," he says. "It's all to say they don't have a problem when it's obvious that they do. I suppose we have a different outlook. I'm an engineer by training. If I see a problem I say, 'Let's fix it.' Bureaucrats say, 'Let's hide it and hope it goes away.'"

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

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