By Ben Joravsky
The time will come in the not-so-distant future when Lakeview residents will thank developer Keith Bank for plopping a 16-screen movie theater near one of the city’s busiest traffic corners. By then the theater will be a huge hit with the locals, generating tax dollars and jobs.
Or so says Bank, executive vice president for Hiffman Shaffer Associates, which is developing the project. “We believe we’re providing a high-quality development and making a great improvement over what currently exists on the site. We think the neighborhood will be proud of it.”
Until that moment of enlightenment, however, residents undoubtedly will remain steaming mad over the proposal and wonder why Chicago, unlike other municipalities, allows such megaprojects to move forward without holding public hearings.
“To hear the developers, there’s nothing we can do to stop them because they have the zoning,” says Ron Lippert, a Lakeview resident. “They can erect their theaters and make their money, and if our lives are disrupted, if our neighborhood’s ruined, so what? That’s no way to run a city.”
The current plans call for a seven-story structure (taller than any adjacent building), featuring 16 screens, 3,800 seats, and a 350-space parking garage on a block just north of the intersection of Broadway, Clark, and Diversey. It doesn’t help that the man who owns the property on which the theaters will be built is Lou Wolf, one of the city’s most notorious landlords.
Wolf served eight months in a state prison after being convicted on arson charges. “No one knows how much of the city [Wolf] owns,” David Jackson wrote in a 1989 Chicago magazine article, which featured a mug shot of Wolf over the headline “Chicago’s Worst Landlord.”
“I’ve examined thousands of county records and court documents,” he wrote. “I’ve counted properties on which he’s been cited for building code violations or served with mechanic’s liens, properties mentioned in lawsuits as belonging to him, and others for which there’s anecdotal or other evidence of ownership. The resulting list is staggering. As near as I can tell, Wolf and his partner Ken Goldberg…control dozens of storefronts on North Broadway, Sheridan Road, and North Clark Street…and properties scattered through the South and West sides.”
What infuriates community groups, according to Jackson, is that Wolf practices a strategy known as land banking. “[Wolf] picks up a troubled piece of commercial property in a critical up-and-coming area–say, a building whose owner blew a tax bill or a bank loan. Once Wolf buys the parcel, he may lease it out, or he may sit on it, holding it boarded and vacant, until a buyer comes along with the right price.”
In effect the neighborhood is held hostage by an eyesore that deters growth by scaring off potential investors. Attempts to force Wolf to clean up his property usually result in months of wasted time in housing court.
The site of the proposed theaters–a string of ratty-looking storefronts on the west side of Broadway, running from Surf to just north of Diversey–has followed a similar pattern. Over the years Wolf has rented to a wide array of businesses–some reputable looking, some not–few of which last more than a year or two. “When my husband and I moved here in the 1960s they were already in bad shape,” says Lydia Talbot. “I can remember John Callaway, then a radio news reporter, on the air covering a fire at a store on Surf and Broadway. This would have been in 1964, I think.”
Since then–with the help of an influx of young and moneyed couples–the surrounding neighborhood has steadily prospered. It was, everyone figured, only a matter of time before a developer came forward with a bountiful deal Wolf could not refuse.
For its part, Bank says, Hiffman Shaffer has been eyeing the site for a long time. “We think it’s a tremendous site for development and the highest and best use is for theaters. There’s no nearby competing theater to serve this neighborhood.”
Over the last few months the company has put together a plan for a 125,000-square-foot development, including ground-floor retail, the movie theaters, and the parking garage. General Cinema will manage the theaters, and Hiffman will oversee the retail space, says Bank.
As for Wolf, Bank says the controversial landlord will have no role in running the theaters or leasing the retail space. “I’ve heard stories about [Wolf’s] past, but it’s been fine so far–we’ve gotten along OK,” says Bank. “We have the property under contract. We’re going to be ground leasing from him. He obtains ownership, but he has nothing to do with running it as long as we pay him the rent check.”
Residents admit that Hiffman shouldn’t be penalized for Wolf’s past sins. But they worry because the theaters would revert to Wolf should the development fail. And if the project succeeds, it irritates them to think that Wolf would, in effect, be rewarded after having neglected the property for years. “I really wish Wolf wasn’t involved in this in any way,” says Michael Golden, a resident. “At the very least I wish it were a straight sale.”
But Wolf’s role is not the residents’ only objection. For starters, they don’t feel they were properly notified of the proposal. “Our first hint of the deal came last winter in a blurb in Crain’s that said something like Hiffman’s bringing a good development into the neighborhood,” says Lippert.
Several residents then asked to meet with Bank. “My husband Earl went down and looked at the plans, which called for something like 8 to 12 screens,” says Talbot. “Since then it’s jumped to 16. When we asked about the jump, they said, ‘This is what we need to make this economically feasible.’ Well, if you can’t make it economically feasible without overtaxing the neighborhood maybe you shouldn’t be doing it.”
Bank agreed to meet with residents in March. But if he was hoping to win them over it didn’t work. And now the two sides are openly bickering. Bank says the residents are pestering him with questions for which they know he has no answers. “They ask how much will we charge for parking and I tell them, ‘I don’t know, we’re working on that, we’ll tell you as soon as we know,'” says Bank. “And yet they keep asking.”
Residents say the developers have been evasive on important issues. “We asked them about the signs,” says Lippert. “And the answer is no more nor less than what’s on the street. Well, what does that mean? Dominick’s has a pretty big sign. Is that what we have to look forward to looking at?”
At a meeting last week before more than 400 residents, Hiffman’s traffic consultants said staggered movie times would allow cars to come and go in stages so Broadway would never be overburdened. In fact, they contended, the theater may ease congestion by offering motorists, even those not attending a movie, a place to park.
Few residents were convinced. “One lady got up and said, ‘So that means we’ll have a continuous flow of traffic 365 days a year,'” says Cheryl Reimann, a resident. “She said, ‘I can live with the Cubs because they have a fixed schedule I can work around. But how can I function–getting kids to school or shopping–if there’s a continuous source of traffic blocking the streets?'”
At the end of the meeting there was a hand vote, and the project was overwhelmingly rejected, although many local merchants favored it.
The local alderman, Bernie Hansen, says he’ll side with residents if no accommodation can be reached. But Bank says that Hansen can’t block the project even if he wants to. “We’re currently zoned and we’re participating in [meetings with residents] only as an accommodation to the neighborhood,” Bank says. “We are building a lot less than existing zoning allows. We could build something even taller and more dense.”
Mike Quigley, an aide to Hansen, says zoning matters are unresolved. “I don’t know if they need a zoning change,” he says. “We won’t know until they issue a specific building plan. If we have leverage through zoning then we can make them make accommodations. Otherwise they can just build it.”
Quigley predicts that the imbroglio will lead to an effort to downzone the area. “The fact is that this neighborhood was built without the car in mind,” says Quigley. “It’s since evolved into a hot area where almost all the residents have cars and everyone who comes here wants to drive. I think we’ll see an effort to ease the traffic congestion by downzoning.”
In the meantime residents are upset to think that they have so little control over what gets built in their neighborhood. “Isn’t anyone in the city paying attention, or do they just react to things after they happen?” says Lippert. “Of course we want to clean this block up. But there has to be some middle ground between what we’ve got and what they’re offering.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.