Hammered | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Hammered 

Despite a glut of similar stores, another Home Depot is planned for the northwest side. And the residents who will have to live in its shadow (and share its traffic) can like it or lump it.

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On Saturday, July 20, residents of the Irving Park neighborhood will gather in the vast vacant lot at Kimball and Addison to protest the Home Depot that's supposed to be built there in the next few months. They also plan to protest what they call the "sorry state of planning in the age of Mayor Daley."

"We live in a monarchy," says Michael Graff, a member of the Irving Park Neighbors Association. "Planning in this city is crap. If Mayor Daley wants it he gets it, whether it makes sense or not."

The ten-and-a-half-acre lot--the area's largest undeveloped slab of land--was once the site of a paper factory, but it went out of business years ago. Over the last decade the land's been vacant as Daley's squashed one attempt after another to put a school, a day care center, a park, or town houses there. According to city planners, Daley was holding out for industrial use, but 33rd Ward alderman Richard Mell says the owner's asking price was too high for industrial. "No one in their right mind is going to pay 23 or 24 dollars [a square foot] for manufacturing," he says. "You can go out to Elk Grove Village and get something for $4.50."

In the mid-90s Builders Square expressed interest in putting a store there, but the residents, backed by Mell, defeated that proposal. They argued that any retail development would bring too much traffic--something they're still arguing. "If you drive on Addison at rush hour it's near gridlock," says Vicki White, also a member of the association. "The traffic's already terrible. I don't think we should make it worse."

Over the last few years countless neighborhood meetings have been held to discuss the issue. "The area needed a school or open space, not a giant retail complex," says Graff. "For a lot of us, housing was not the first choice. But if it was constructed right--and we were ready to work with developers--that would be OK."

In November 2000 a ballot referendum asked voters whether the zoning for the lot should be changed "to allow for nonindustrial and noncommercial use [such as] a public library, a public school, senior citizen center, nature center or residential housing." Over 90 percent of voters said yes.

"I always thought the best thing that should go there would be a library," says Harold Turrentine, a local resident. "But I was willing to be reasonable--we all were. We just wanted the city to work with us."

In the summer of 2001 they thought they had got their wish, as the Rezmar Corporation, a local development company, emerged with a proposal to erect 164 housing units and a park on the land. Throughout the summer, residents met with Rezmar about the plan, which had Mell's approval. They also worked to win Daley's support. "We wanted a meeting with Mayor Daley," says Graff, "so we could show him the plan and present our view."

In September, Graff raised the subject at a neighborhood meeting sponsored by the city to discuss budget issues, which was attended by Daley. "I got up and gave a speech," he says. "I reminded the mayor of the referendum. I said that everybody's always asking the city for money--but we're not asking for any money. In fact, the city can make tax dollars on this by changing the zoning to let in the housing. When I was done the mayor said nothing. He just sat there. So I asked, 'Is there any way we can meet with you?' And Daley said, 'What do you want me to do? I just got here.' I just took my papers and sat down--because the answer I got is that there was no answer. I should have known then and there that something was coming that we didn't want. I just didn't know what it was."

A few months later Graff and the other residents found out. "One of our neighbors was out walking when he saw a surveyor working in the lot," says White. "I think this was in about January. He asked, 'What are you doing?' and the guy said, 'Oh, Home Depot's coming in.' How's that for keeping the community informed?"

Over the next few months the residents tried to learn exactly what was being planned. They called Rezmar, Home Depot corporate officials in Atlanta, city planners, Mayor Daley, and Alderman Mell--but no one would or could say for certain whether the store was coming. (Home Depot press spokesman Tom Gray didn't return phone calls for this story.)

In the spring Mell called Turrentine. "He said he had Home Depot's building plans in his office," says Turrentine. "That's when we knew it was official."

Turrentine says that he and his neighbors think the city was being sneaky. They also think they're at a disadvantage in battling the proposal because the lot, as well as several surrounding precincts, was moved in last year's reapportionment from the 33rd Ward to the 35th. That means oversight is now in the hands of Alderman Vilma Colom, not Mell.

In May several members of the Irving Park Neighbors Association met with Colom. They say it didn't go well. "She said it was a done deal," says Graff. "I told her about how over 90 percent of voters--her new voters--voted in the referendum, and she said, 'Do you have proof of that? Do you have the paperwork?' We said we have newspaper articles. She said that's not good enough--she needs proof from the Board of Elections."

In June the association had a public meeting with Colom at the Abbey Pub. According to reporter Patrick Butler's June 26 account in the Booster, Colom essentially told the residents that there was nothing they could do to stop Home Depot from building on the site. "It's a reality," she was quoted as saying. "You can either live in the past or be part of the future."

According to residents, when they complained that the traffic might undercut the value of property in the area, Colom told them not to be "selfish." (Colom didn't return phone calls either.)

Residents say they expected more from her. "The expression 'done deal' is intended to prevent any open discussion or activity on the part of residents," says White. "It's supposed to deflate us, to make us feel as though we can't beat it, so don't even try." And she resents the suggestion that the neighbors are being selfish. "No one says that Home Depot's being selfish when they want to build a store there. But home owners who want to protect the value of their property--which is probably their nest egg--are selfish. That's just another attempt to trivialize our legitimate concerns, to cast aspersions on people for daring to articulate their point of view."

Like many of her neighbors, White criticizes the city for not informing them of Home Depot's plans for the lot. "It went from unfounded rumor to done deal almost overnight," she says. "There should be a meeting about a proposal of this magnitude."

City planning officials say there was no statutory obligation for a public meeting on the issue, because Home Depot meets the zoning requirements for the lot. They also insist the store will be good for the neighborhood, providing jobs and buffering local industries from residential encroachment. "There are about 20 [industrial] companies in that area, with more than 1,200 employees," says Peter Scales, a spokesman for the Planning Department. "Although we would prefer a more industrial use on that site, Home Depot will have a lumberyard, and it will sell contracting supplies. So it has a quasi, if you will, industrial use. It's certainly something that will be a buffer between the industrial corridor [along the Kennedy Expressway] and the residential areas that surround it. You know that residential and industrial go together like oil and water. The Home Depot will protect those industrial jobs that may have been jeopardized if residents were allowed to go there."

Neighborhood residents contend that the city has minimized the detrimental impact Home Depot would have on the surrounding industries and businesses. "The city says it wants to protect local industries," says White, "but how are these industries going to get their trucks in and out through all that traffic generated by Home Depot? And what about the consequences for other businesses? I don't believe the hype about the net increase in jobs. The city keeps talking about the 200 jobs Home Depot will add. What about the stores it might displace? And what about ancillary businesses? Do you think Home Depot's going to give accounting or advertising business to local companies in the neighborhood? Of course not. There's all kinds of multiplying effects on jobs. The city has never made any kind of attempt to quantify the impact of a big development like this on a community. There's no planning. No studies. No one's asking these questions. Everyone just falls into line."

Residents also say the area doesn't need another home-repair outlet. Off the top of his head Turrentine counts 15, including three Home Depots, within 20 minutes of the site. "Where's the market for all these stores?" he asks. "You have to ask yourself, is one store going to drive another store out of business?"

The city contends that this won't be a problem, because Home Depot officials wouldn't have been interested in the lot if they hadn't seen a market in the area. "The site location in terms of large corporations is a science nowadays," says Scales. "They're not going to put in a store that they think is going to close the next year. It certainly won't drive those industrial companies out of business. It will, in fact, help them."

Scales insists the Home Depot "is not a done deal. We're still waiting for a traffic study on how it would impact the area." But Mell believes the Home Depot will be built, if only because it has the support of Daley, who usually gets what he wants. "I won't say it's a done deal," Mell says. "As Yogi Berra says, it's never over until it's over. I know the neighbors don't want it, and they're doing everything they can to keep it out. But you know how things go in this town. I, frankly, am tired of this fight. This has been on the agenda for years. It seems like every month I have to explain to someone what's going on. I thought I had the ideal solution [with the housing], but the mayor said no. Why they would fight housing on this one piece of land when the Elston and Clybourn [industrial] corridors have gone residential, I don't know."

The residents say they'll continue fighting the Home Depot plan. At their 10 AM rally on Saturday they intend to make speeches and pass out flyers. Graff says he'll dress up for the occasion. "I'm going to be King Richard," he says. "I'm going to wear a crown, and I'll have a staff with a dollar sign on the top. It's a perfect symbol of how things get done in Chicago these days."

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

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