For several years, it seems the City of Chicago has been turning itself inside out to create cultural facilities on the south side. It’s provided tax-increment financing for the Beverly Arts Center, quick-take eminent domain authority on behalf of Second City Bronzeville, and support to ETA Creative Arts for a complex on South Chicago Avenue. Yet here’s Dan Peterman operating a south-side arts center, and he can’t even get a building permit.

“This is not a center for the arts with capital letters and a big staircase,” says Peterman about the Experimental Station, the nonprofit arts and small-business incubator he’s hoping to open in the building he owns at 6100 S. Blackstone. Before a fire gutted the property in April 2001, it housed studio and exhibition space for artists (including Peterman), rooms for woodworking classes, and the offices of cultural journal the Baffler, as well as a bicycle-repair training program and shop.

But just before it burned, Peterman’s property was the target of an eminent domain proceeding instigated by the Chicago Public Schools, which sought to condemn the building and acquire the grounds to add to the campus of neighboring Carnegie Elementary. CPS ended up getting a small piece of the property that didn’t include the building, but after the fire, says Peterman, the city didn’t waste any time getting back on the demolition track. “We had a building inspector out here before the firemen left….There was a hard push to get rid of the building. The fire was Wednesday, and on Friday we were in court.” The judge ruled for Peterman and after several months issued a consent decree governing reconstruction–subject, of course, to Peterman’s securing a building permit.

Eighteen months later, he’s still waiting. In January 2002 Peterman submitted an application for a foundation-only permit, which covers just a building’s external structure and is theoretically faster to get than a permit for full construction. In May the Department of Buildings sent his application back, seeking extensive reassurances about the integrity of the structure, particularly about whether the proposed new roof would be light enough to sit on the existing walls but still heavy enough to stay on. The city wanted Peterman to make significant corrections to his application; instead he sent in a fresh set of plans in September. They were returned in December with still more requests for correction.

“We made some simplifications so it would go through,” says Peterman. “But it’s a one-story building. This is not brain surgery….We would have had this thing back up in six months and everyone back at work given a little cooperation.” Peterman’s tenants are still with him, working out of construction trailers, though very slowly: the Baffler sent out its first postfire issue to press just last week.

“The permit hasn’t been issued because the owner has the plans and hasn’t returned them with the corrections,” says buildings department spokesperson Kristen Lobbins-Cabanban, citing records showing its May requests went unanswered. Unfortunately, the department didn’t consider Peterman’s reapplication in September to be a response. “Typically major constructions go through two to three reviews,” says Lobbins-Cabanban. An average building permit takes three and a half months for “a building that is two stories or less, like a residence. [For] a commercial building, I don’t have an average time.”

Lobbins-Cabanban was unaware that in May 2001, the Department of Cultural Affairs wrote then buildings commissioner Mary Richardson-Lowry to alert her to “international concern regarding the future of this property” because of its cultural value and requesting that “consideration…be extended to Mr. Peterman in his effort to rebuild.” The letter was accompanied by copies of dozens of missives Cultural Affairs had received on Peterman’s behalf from institutions here and abroad–including the Smart Museum, the Art Institute, the Nation magazine, the Akademie der Kunste in Berlin, and the French consulate general.

“We are supportive of Mr. Peterman,” says Cultural Affairs deputy commissioner Matt Nielson, who describes his department as “a facilitator for the arts, reaching out to other departments.” But he also notes that the city’s cultural plan “doesn’t go block by block,” so in considering what institutions to support “we would pretty much follow the development plans for the area that the alderman or the Department of Planning has.” In Peterman’s neighborhood that would be the Woodlawn Revitalization Plan, announced by Mayor Daley in 1999, which calls for market-rate housing developments throughout the neighborhood and has resulted in the razing of entire blocks to permit their construction.

And that, suggests Peterman, may be the real problem. “It’s a simple idea,” he says of the city’s approach to land use: “‘Let’s clear things out that don’t look like what the developers and the community leaders think it should look like.'” Peterman’s building has arguably had a positive impact on the local community–the bike shop serves kids from the neighborhood almost exclusively–“but from the top-down vision we would look like an anomaly,” he says. Because his center isn’t part of the mayor’s blueprint, “we would be expendable or even something to get rid of.” If he’s right it’s a minor irony, because an arts facility is usually considered both harbinger and guarantor of a neighborhood’s up-and-coming status. “Though it’s far from our intended goal,” Peterman says, “we have been helping sell real estate in Woodlawn.”

If community leaders are grateful, they’re keeping their own counsel–though no one will admit to objecting to Peterman’s plan either. The Woodlawn Organization, a real estate developer as well as the area’s most powerful community group, professes itself ignorant of the property (located one block from its headquarters) while welcoming the idea of cultural facilities in the neighborhood. Alderman Arenda Troutman did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

While declining to criticize the buildings department, Nielson offers Peterman the consolation of a fellow sufferer. “When we were renovating buildings for the Gallery 37 center, we went through several interpretations of the building code, and that was a city project. We want to promote the arts, but sometimes venues can be problematic.” Pressed on whether his department would intervene if asked, Nielson says, “You can’t ask to interfere with another department’s process. To even entertain the thought of doing it, we’d have to have a clear understanding of where things are on both sides, not just he-said, she-said. Then if we wanted to help foster things along, we would.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane, Nathan Mandell.