They’re building a strip mall on the old, deserted blacktop lot–now covered with ice–out behind the Berwyn Avenue elevated stop in Edgewater.

It’s nothing fancy, really, just a small and simple stretch of shops. It’s the kind of project they build all the time in the suburbs, where most folks undoubtedly would pay it little mind.

But Edgewater is not a suburb. It’s a lively and diverse north-side community whose baffling politics are so charged with emotion that the proposed construction of a small, as-of-now tenantless mall can provoke a bizarre and bitter name-calling war.

“If you had told me that this project was going to cause opposition, I would have said you were crazy,” says 48th Ward Alderman Kathy Osterman, a major proponent of the mall. “We’re talking about taking underused land and putting it to use. We’re talking about providing much-needed shopping for our residents, and public improvements for our community. What in the world could possibly be wrong with that?”

Well, so long as you’re asking, alderman, here’s what the mall’s critics say. The mall will dislocate small businesses; divert revenues needed by other, more worthy ventures; enrich a developer named Charles Markopoulos (who could not be reached for comment) with a municipal bailout he does not deserve; and spur gentrification, which will uproot the area’s poor.

Preposterous, Osterman responds; and considering the evidence, she has a point. But the mall’s opponents, led by the Organization of the NorthEast, are making no concessions.

“We don’t oppose the development of this lot,” says Tomas Bissonnette, president of the board of ONE. “But we oppose the way this project has been handled. We have asked many important questions. And we still don’t have the answers.”

The project began in the summer of 1986, when the First National Realty & Development Company, of which Markopoulos is vice-president, bought the two-acre site on the southeast corner of the intersection of Berwyn and Broadway. The agents that stir the dispute, however, have been at play in Edgewater for the last 20 or 30 years.

In the early days, Edgewater was a sleepy lakefront community of single-family homes, punctuated here and there by walk-up apartment buildings. That was before the developers, with their deep pockets and political clout, took control.

“We lost the lakefront to the high rises in the 1960s,” says Jack Markowski, executive director of the Edgewater Community Council. “Along Sheridan Road from Hollywood to Devon is the most densely populated lakefront property in all of Lake Michigan. There are 10,000 people who live there. At the time, the residents of Edgewater fought every single one of those high rises. The city argued that the high rises would increase property taxes and keep the middle class in Chicago. Maybe so, but we lost a lot of fine homes and beaches, and the quality of life suffered as well.”

On top of that, developers out for a fast buck began replacing many of the homes along streets just west of the lake, streets like Winthrop and Kenmore, with a new construction called the four-plus-one.

“While the big-time operators created canyons of skyscraper vulgarity, the lesser exploiters, not to be outdone in rapacity, introduced little jerry-built apartments known as four-plus-ones that began to mushroom like noxious weeds in the better inner-city residential areas,” wrote Carl Condit, the noted scholar on Chicago architecture, in his book Chicago, 1930-70. “By dropping the ground floor a little below grade the builder could hold a five-floor apartment building below 55 feet and thus, according to the code, use a framing system of wood rather than steel or concrete. Ugly, shoddy, dangerous, minimal in utilities and design, the four-plus-one simultaneously guaranteed the destruction of good housing and the creation of slums where none existed before.”

As Condit and other historians point out, the new developments caused an overall decline in property values along many of these side streets. Other landlords converted their apartment buildings into boarding homes by subdividing some of the larger units. In time, the area immediately west of the lake was inundated with the poor, some dislocated by massive urban renewal efforts elsewhere in the city, others recently released from state mental institutions.

Edgewater is still home to many lovely single-family houses, and it represents one of the few peacefully integrated communities in Chicago. And yet, over the years, a crude political battle has emerged, one that pits home owners and high-rise residents against the poor, against, at least, the self-proclaimed representatives of the poor.

“In a nutshell, ONE is supposed to represent the poor and ECC the middle class,” says one north-side politician who has sought support from both groups. “Although, after a while, simple categorization becomes misleading; and when you think about it rationally, none of these squabbles makes any sense.”

Of course, the factions have different points of view. We are, ONE officials maintain, a coalition of some 60 local organizations, and, as such, stand above parochial frays. As for ECC, well, listen to Osterman, once the group’s president:

“ECC is a 20-year-old organization whose style is not confrontational, and doesn’t believe in outside organizers coming in to say ‘We will determine your destiny.'” (Translation, for the uninitiated: we are not troublemakers like ONE, which employs Saul Alinsky-style confrontational tactics and well-paid Alinsky-style strategists, who come in to pick a fight and probably will leave the community after a few years’ stay.)

Anyway, few observers expected the Berwyn project to become entangled in the local feud. After all, most neighborhoods in Chicago, outside of overdeveloped Lincoln Park, welcome any kind of retail developments their commercial strips can get.

“There used to be a Treasure Island on the property,” says Marion Volini, Osterman’s predecessor as alderman. “After it went out of business, a couple of developers talked about doing a project there, but the numbers were not there to make it feasible.”

The problem with the particular strip of Broadway Avenue that runs through Edgewater is that a lot of the land was once occupied by car dealerships, long since closed. As a result, the area lends itself to small-strip development.

“You can’t just put in a store here and there, the way you can on stretches of Clark Street or in Lincoln Park,” says Markowski. “You have to develop them as malls. And that takes a little more doing.”

Some strip development has already begun. Just north of Berwyn, for instance, is a Jewel food store; across the street is a glitzy mall that includes a Gap jeans store, a Pier One furniture showroom, and several fast-food eateries.

Markopoulos envisions more of the same for the Berwyn site–a low-cost shoe store, a video parlor, and a Peaches Records outlet are some of the tenants most talked about. Unlike other developments along Broadway, the Berwyn site cannot be financed without assistance from the city, Markopoulos says, although, as ONE accurately maintains, the developer has never substantiated this claim.

So Volini decided to have the land declared a tax incremental financing (TIF) district, which would enable the city to help pay for the project by issuing low-interest bonds. The bonds would be paid off via the increase in property and sales taxes generated by Markopoulos’s mall.

“TIFs are one of the few tools left for economic development,” says Markowski. “They’re supposed to promote bootstrap initiatives and private-public partnerships.”

That’s the generous viewpoint. The other side of the story is that TIFs rarely help the needy. They require private financing, and that eliminates most impoverished areas, where few developers if any will sink their money. In addition, the state guidelines governing TIFs are loosely written.

“There is a provision that says the TIFs can only be used on those projects that “but for the TIF’ would not be developed,” Markowski explains. “A lot of people question how much that is enforced. TIF districts should be blighted, but the definition of blight is loose.”

Highland Park, for instance, retrieved about $2 million in state sales taxes last year to help pay for the redevelopment of its downtown.

“There is this fallacy that TIFs are free,” says a ONE organizer who asked not to be identified. “That’s wrong. The money spent on a TIF would otherwise go into the general tax coffers, where it could be spent on schools. We should be strict with TIFs, and save them for really devastated areas.”

This is a point of view that ECC backers will admit has merit.

“Yes, there are communities in Chicago that need more economic development than Edgewater,” says Markowski. “But we’re not just competing against other neighborhoods; we’re competing against towns and suburbs all over the state. We just want to use the resources we have to get people to shop in our community. This is not Highland Park. We really do need a shot in the arm.”

Besides, Osterman notes, the CTA has responded to Markopoulos’s project by agreeing to renovate the Berwyn elevated station, and to reroute two bus lines that now wind through residential streets east of Broadway.

“Markopoulos is proposing to build a cul-de-sac, on Berwyn, so that buses making stops at the el station won’t have to drive through residential side streets to turn around and continue their routes,” says Osterman. “We talked about allowing cars to drive through the cul-de-sac, but the CTA legal department said no to that. So we have to ask ourselves, What’s more important, keeping buses off of residential streets, or keeping Berwyn open? Well, for as long as I can remember, people east of Broadway have complained about disruptive bus traffic. And now we have the chance to eliminate that with a project that will also streetscape Berwyn and spruce up the el station.”

Indeed, there was little opposition to the proposal when it was announced. The City Council unanimously approved the TIF district at a December 1986 meeting. And Markopoulos and the city were negotiating the details of the deal when ONE struck last August.

“We were slow to react because we had thought it was a done deal,” says Tomas Bissonnette. “When we realized that the terms of the agreement had not been finalized, we decided to investigate.”

Upon investigation, they decided that the cul-de-sac was intended to isolate the poor east of Broadway from the middle-class enclave to the west. It’s all part of a move toward ghettoization, they charge, an attempt to make the poor feel so shamefully unwanted that they will leave the area.

“There is a class issue involved because the people east of Broadway are quite poor. When the aldermen are told that these people might leave because of the project, they say fine,” says Bissonnette. “There’s also concern about the way the developer has behaved. He promised the businesses on Berwyn that he would buy them out. But it took him six to eight months to come up with the money. He made the payment only after ONE brought attention to the situation. If that’s how he treats people, it makes us wonder how he will deal with the neighborhood.”

“That talk about class is nonsense,” counters Osterman. “How in the world are a handful of businesses going to displace the poor? We’re talking about revitalizing the commercial streets of Edgewater, not just for blacks or whites or Hispanics or for Asians, but for everyone.

“As for the relocated businesses, [Markopoulos] had started paying them to relocate, but the city told him to stop. There was some question about whether those payments would be covered by the TIF if he made them before the bonds were issued. But when I found out they had not been paid I called up the developer, and the next day the checks were paid.”

In any case, there’s no question that ONE worked very hard. They leafleted the community, wrote letters to editors, demanded city investigations, and whispered to local reporters all sorts of unsubstantiated, off-the- record allegations of political betrayal and deceit.

All told, they raised such a flurry of interest that last November the city held a public meeting. Over 500 residents attended, some bearing signs, others wearing buttons. Almost all, according to press reports, supported the project, including one woman who stirred a roar of approval when she proclaimed: “Let my people shop.”

“I think ONE’s strategy backfired,” adds Markowski. “The more attention they brought to the subject, the more support they generated for the project.”

Members of ONE, of course, disagree. The city, they note, has cut the TIF bond from $3.5 million to $1.1 million. That means Markopoulos will have to finance a greater share of the project. ONE attributes the reduction to their efforts.

In any case, a drawing of the proposed mall hangs on the wall of Osterman’s headquarters–a defiant reminder, no doubt, that the project will continue as soon as Markopoulos and the city hammer out the details of the TIF deal.

“I guess you can say the community won,” says Markowski. “Edgewater is going to get development that it needs. Meanwhile, money just pours into the suburbs, while we fight among ourselves. It’s almost sad. In the suburbs, they’d probably look at us and laugh.”

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