Park or parking lot? Citizens battle city over North Park Village | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Park or parking lot? Citizens battle city over North Park Village 

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It's hard to figure how the Daley administration's plans to build a parking-ticket hearing office on the northwest side got so out of hand.

"This is a simple proposal; we're talking about two rooms for hearing officers," says Inge Fryklund, the city's parking administrator. "We want a neighborhood facility to pay parking tickets; we want to make things convenient for people."

But city officials chose to locate the facility in the administrative building at North Park Village, the much-beloved 160-acre nature preserve at Bryn Mawr and Pulaski. Residents protested that cars coming to the facility would disturb the preserve's tranquillity and endanger the safety of senior citizens who live nearby. Daley refused to relent. And so now the mayor's simple proposal has erupted into a bitter dispute, with outraged northwest-siders accusing city officials of lies, betrayal, and deception.

"The city doesn't realize how much we value North Park," says Zenos Hawkinson, president of the North River Commission, a confederacy of local civic and not-for-profit development groups. "We fought hard to get the city to preserve that land. Now they think they can do whatever they please there. Well, we're not an occupied territory; we have rights. We intend to fight hard."

The densely wooded preserve was a tuberculosis sanatorium that closed in 1974. After that, residents pressured Richard J. Daley into creating the North Park Village Advisory Council to oversee the preserve's future.

"The advisory council consisted of local residents and civic leaders," says Joseph Cicero, executive director of the North River Commission. "From the start they tried to keep as much of the village preserve as possible."

But several structures from the sanatorium were left on the site (including its old administration building), and over the years there has been some construction: there's a city-run health center, a public school for the handicapped, and two buildings with a total of about 400 senior-citizen apartments.

"In about 1984, the Washington administration asked if we would set aside a portion of the village for development," says Cicero. "They reminded us that the village costs about $2 million a year to maintain. We agreed that the site had to generate some tax revenue to offset its costs."

After five years of negotiations, the city and the advisory council signed an agreement opening 12 acres for low-scale development and leaving much of the rest of the village as it is.

"There's 100 acres of open land filled with nature paths, ponds, trees, and birds," says Hawkinson. "School kids coming there all the time to walk through the woods. It's a peaceful sanctuary; you wouldn't know you were in the city."

Then in the spring of this year the advisory council got a phone call from Ben Reyes, commissioner of the Department of General Services.

"We oversee the city's assets," says Reyes. "The city has a ton of money that goes for leases and a ton of [empty] space in city-owned buildings. To save money we want to move city departments into city-owned property; so far we've cut ten leases."

Reyes wanted to move 20 employees from the Bureau of Forestry into the second floor of the administration building at North Park Village. "We asked, 'Will there be trucks?' and Ben said, 'No trucks,'" says Cicero. "So we said OK."

A few months later, Reyes asked if he could relocate the 50 employees from the Mayor's Office of Internal Investigations to the administration building. "Again we relented," says Cicero. "Basically, we bent over backwards and said, 'Stick it to us, but do it in good faith.'"

Then came August 22, the day residents opened their local newspaper and learned of city plans to operate a parking-ticket facility in North Park Village.

"We were upset," says Jerome Sachs, president emeritus of Northeastern Illinois University and chairman of the advisory council. "The council is supposed to consent to any plans for the village, but the city already had its brochure for the facility printed when we read that article. I don't call that consent."

At the council's insistence, Reyes scheduled a meeting for August 27; roughly 100 residents attended, including Marge Laurino, whose father Anthony is the local alderman.

Reyes apologized for not notifying the council of the city's plans. "The advisory council didn't have a meeting scheduled for the summer and we had to move fast," says Reyes.

The center would help the city raise more revenue and maybe even lower taxes, Fryklund argued. As it stands, Chicago collects only about 25 percent of its tickets, among the lowest rates in the country. But with the new center (along with two others on the south and west sides) the city might generate untold millions by making it more convenient for scofflaws to pay their fines; Fryklund anticipates the center getting about 200 visitors a day.

But most residents were unmoved. One resident, using statistics provided by Fryklund, figured the center would draw 300, not 200, ticket payers a day. But it really didn't matter what the numbers were, because the residents didn't want anyone driving there. The village was supposed to be a park, not a parking lot.

"I don't understand why they want to build these neighborhood facilities in the first place," says Leeann Rites, who lives in the village. "Why can't the scofflaws just mail their checks downtown like the rest of us? The thing about the city is that they never know when to stop. First it was the forest bureau, then [internal investigation], now it's the parking-ticket place. What's next?"

Reyes promised to create an ad hoc group--consisting of city officials on one side and Jerry Sachs and Rose Wandel, another advisory council member, on the other--to look for alternative sites for the parking ticket facility.

"[Reyes] said he would schedule another meeting in three weeks, but that was the last we heard from him until I called him on September 4," says Cicero. "I asked about the meeting, and he said, 'Forget the meeting. I've got a new development. We got some money. I can spend between $10 and $14 a square foot if you can find someplace suitable.' I was ecstatic. I told him about a shopping center and a fire station in the area."

A week passed without word from the city, so Cicero called Reyes again. "He said he would meet with Jerry and Rose on September 14th," says Cicero. "Rose was ill on the 14th, so she asked me to go in her place. We walked into that meeting room and there seated around a table was the alderman and his daughter, Inge, Ben, and a few assistants.

"I said, 'Ben, what are the alternatives? You told me you had funds.' Ben said, 'You're mistaken.' I said, 'Are you calling me a liar?' He said, 'You're mistaken.' I looked him dead in the eye, and said, "Forget it, let's move on to another topic.' By this time I was angry; I hate being lied to. I asked about the fire station. They said it would cost $240,000 to rehab. I said, 'Bullshit.' I asked if they had checked out [the shopping center]. They said no. I asked why; they said because we're going to have it here.

"Alderman Laurino turned to me and said, 'Joe, I'm for it.' I said, 'Alderman, we've always gotten along.' And the alderman said, 'Joe, the old man [Mayor Daley] wants it.'"

It was at this point, Cicero says, that he threatened to walk out. "But Jerry asked me to stay, so I said, 'Ben, can we work this out?' And Reyes said, 'Joe, we're coming in. I've got to do what I've got to do. And you got to do what you've got to do.' It was pure power politics."

A few weeks later, Mayor Daley sent a letter to residents, assuring them that "people coming to the parking-ticket office will not be driving through the facility."

The city has since rescinded that pledge. "The village is a public facility, and if someone wants to drive through we have to let them," Fryklund admits. "I wish the mayor had phrased that letter differently."

The mayor's letter did not soothe tensions. By then, both sides were questioning the other's credibility.

"I never told him [Cicero] we had money for another site," says Reyes of his September 4 phone call with Cicero. "I would never have said that, because we don't."

Reyes also denies that the September 14 meeting happened the way Cicero says it did. "Joe never said that thing about me calling him a liar," says Reyes. "Never."

Sachs, however, seconds Cicero's version of the meeting. "Joe's version is almost word for word of what was said," says Sachs. "I don't know how or why Reyes could deny that."

For their part, Reyes, Fryklund, and Laurino insist that Cicero has exaggerated local opposition to the plan. "What's so wrong with this plan? The city says they'll get about 100 cars [a day]; I think they'll be lucky to get 6," says Alderman Laurino. "As far as I'm concerned, the opposition comes down to a few individuals, like Cicero. I got a lot of phone calls about it. But when I tell people the real story, they think it's a good plan."

Fryklund chides Cicero for distributing a flier that depicts a senior-citizen being run over by a motorist bound for the ticket office.

"That's an inflammatory cartoon, but I don't think it's working" says Fryklund. "I was at a meeting at one of the senior-citizen buildings in the village and most of the residents came off as pretty apathetic. There was a vote and as many people were for it as against it; the rest just sat there. They were really waiting for the speaker on ceramics who came after us."

Rites, who attended the same meeting, disagrees. "How can she say half the seniors are for it? The vote was overwhelmingly against it," says Rites. "And she's wrong about the ceramics class. Most of the people left long before the ceramics class got started."

Despite their anger, there doesn't seem to be much the residents can do to block the facility, which the city hopes to open on October 15. They've considered filing a lawsuit, but they can't find a lawyer willing to tackle the city. And they've asked to meet with Daley, but so far the mayor has turned them down.

"We worry that the city has other plans in mind for this area," says Cicero. "We think they're softening us up to put something else in that administration building. Why else would they take this kind of pressure over offices they could easily put somewhere else? Something is wrong here; something's up. I guess we'll find out soon enough."

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

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