By Ben Joravsky

The zoning battle on Wilson was like a dozen other land-use struggles all over town, with one big difference: it was in Uptown. So a relatively minor debate over the pros and cons of erecting a two- or three-story state office building turned into the latest boisterous skirmish of class warfare.

“There’s a lot going on here besides the main issue, that’s for sure,” said Frank Wiltse, an Uptown resident who opposed the building.

When the firing stopped this week with Wiltse’s side prevailing, he didn’t know what to think. “I got a call from a [Tribune] reporter saying, ‘What’s your reaction?'” Wiltse said. “There’s been so much disinformation that I didn’t know whether I could believe it. I still think it’s fishy. There’s still something weird about this whole thing. We’re not saying we won. We’re not gloating. It’s just that this is a bubbling cauldron, and we don’t know what’s going on more than anyone else.”

Likewise Alderman Helen Shiller, who was pushing the building. Shiller was uncharacteristically unavailable after her defeat, but an aide commented, “We don’t know what’s happening. All we know is what we read in the papers.”

The issue was what to do with the vacant lot at the southeast corner of Wilson and Magnolia, a few blocks west of Broadway. For years there was a liquor store on the corner, but a few months ago it closed and late last year it was leveled. “After the liquor store was demolished everyone wondered what would come there,” said Wiltse.

They found out from a press release issued by Shiller announcing her hearty endorsement of a “new economic development project.” The state was going to build a new home for several Department of Human Services agencies currently housed in a building just west of Damen on Lawrence.

The project would create jobs, make the state offices more accessible to residents, and spur development on Wilson, the press release asserted.

But Shiller’s cheery announcement generated as much opposition as support. The Wilson and Magnolia intersection is relatively sleepy by Uptown standards. It doesn’t even have traffic lights. A new office building would cause traffic congestion and take away parking.

Moreover, Shiller and the state were vague on details, though the alderman had proposed a zoning change to accommodate the office building. There were no site plans or drawings. Nobody could say for sure how many state agencies would be housed there, how many employees would work there, how many parking spaces they would need. “No matter who we called–and we called the city and state–no one could answer our most basic questions,” said Gabriella Filisko, another Uptown resident. “I said, ‘Listen, I’m not against a state agency in Uptown. I’m concerned about this particular corner.’ But they couldn’t tell us even how many stories the building would be. We kept saying, ‘At least hold a community meeting and let us see the plans and meet the developer before you go for the zoning change.'”

By the end of December residents had formed an ad hoc group called Agora and were mounting a campaign against the project. Their digging turned up a copy of a lease signed by the state. They found out the developer was Peter Palivos, who under the terms of the lease would receive about $20 a square foot in rent from the state.

“That rent’s high for this neighborhood,” said Wiltse. “Other rents around here go for about $10 or $15 a square foot. We began to wonder what’s going on. They had a lease before they had zoning. There wasn’t a community meeting. This was going awfully fast. We kept asking, ‘What’s the rush?'”

On January 11 Shiller’s zoning-change request came before the City Council’s zoning committee. Agora brought 35 residents to the meeting, where they quickly learned that zoning committee meetings, like most council proceedings, are orchestrated for the benefit of the well connected. Their matter was dropped to the bottom of the docket, and they sat for over an hour as one developer after another–each backed by lawyers, consultants, planners, and architects–made his or her case for other projects. When Agora’s turn finally came, about 30 residents spoke, voices cracking, emotions rising, faces turning flush. When they were finished the committee adopted Shiller’s proposal without debate.

“Except for Shiller, there wasn’t anyone from the other side,” said Wiltse. “All those other proposals we sat through had presentations. We didn’t even have the developer. Palivos didn’t show. The state wasn’t there. They didn’t have a lawyer. They didn’t present building plans or drawings. We begged the aldermen to defer on the matter until a community meeting could be held. But they passed it anyway.”

Hitting the phones, Agora pleaded with reporters to cover its cause. The Tribune responded with an article dismissing the matter as another case of yuppies fighting poor people in Uptown. “The future of the community is at stake in the sense that this is a move that’s needed by the least fortunate in the community,” said Sarah Knoy, executive director of the Organization of the NorthEast, a neighborhood group, in the Tribune. “I believe the opposition to this move comes from a very unfortunate, mean spirit that seems to be growing in Uptown.”

Knoy said the opposition was using “racially coded language.”

Her comments left Agora’s members crying foul. “It’s a cheap shot– this has nothing to do with race or class,” said David Rowe, an Uptown resident who happens to be African-American. “That’s ludicrous. They’re trying to demonize us to deflect attention from the legitimate questions we’re raising.”

“I’m a marine veteran who spent some time on welfare–I know what it’s like to be poor,” added Wiltse. “I resent their accusations. I’m not against a state building in Uptown. I’m against a state building on this site. I told them I’d be against any office building going here–even IBM. We’re raising legitimate issues. But by making us into caricatures they can just write us off and ignore what we say.”

Shiller, herself the victim of several misinformation campaigns through the years, had little sympathy for their laments. From her perspective there was nothing out of the ordinary about the proposed building. She said people in Uptown had long been asking the state to bring its social service agencies closer to the community. She said the rent didn’t seem outrageously high.

“For me this is not a major deal,” said the alderman. “The state office building is a two-story building that’s consistent with what’s on the street. That particular block has always been designed for business since I can remember. It’s a business-zoned area which houses doctor offices, liquor stores, grocery stores. This is not something new. There have been discussions about how Uptown is the appropriate site for this sort of building for years.”

But shouldn’t a community meeting be held before, and not after, a zoning request is approved?

“Well, you might have a point, but I really didn’t think this would be a big deal. The zoning change is not that significant. It is my judgment that we did not make substantial change in the land use. It’s still a business designation.”

According to Shiller, the residents allowed themselves to be misled and confused by her long-standing opponents. “People called me on the phone and passed on the most outrageous distortions from unidentifiable sources,” she said. “Listen, we know what’s going on here. There’s always volatile politics in Uptown. We all know that. I know that there are some people in this ward who won’t be satisfied with anything that goes there, so it doesn’t matter if I hold a community meeting to them. And there are other people who only want a community meeting if it means that opponents of the building show up. I know some people are against this proposal. But a lot more people are for it.”

Knoy went one step further, repeating the argument she originally advanced in the Tribune. “I can tell you that there’s a great need for this state building in Uptown,” she said. “This building would service zip codes 60640 and 60613. It’s a terrible hardship for these people to have to go out to the Lawrence Avenue office. It’s more important for them to have an office where they live. And they live in this community. They have always lived in this community.”

As for alternative sites offered by the opposition, Knoy said they weren’t large enough to accommodate the state’s needs. “I don’t see any reason to be against this building except for racism and being antipoverty,” she said.

Neither side backed down. Agora scored a victory when it managed to stop construction. It turned out that the state was using nonunion workers to excavate the site, and after one or two phone calls to the leading construction unions all work halted.

But once that issue was resolved–that is, once the state hired union workers–the building’s backers seemed to have the upper hand. The area’s other elected officials, including state senator Lisa Madigan and state representative Larry McKeon, pleaded ignorance or helplessness. Mayor Daley–no friend of Shiller or Palivos–could have torpedoed the project with a phone call. But he wasn’t expected to get involved in such a local spat.

Maybe he did. At any rate, the project was suddenly kiboshed Tuesday by the obscure agency that rents state office building. the Department of Central Management Services. The agency ruled that the lease it signed with Palivos last summer was invalid because the property had since been sold by one blind land trust to another. Whether this was a technicality Palivos could quickly take care of, or the sort exploited by powerful enemies who’ve decided something won’t happen until hell freezes over, wasn’t immediately clear, which is why Frank Wiltse was so cautious.

After a while he loosened up. “No one thought we could win!” he exclaimed, and quoted Tom Paine. “Those who expect to reap the benefits of freedom must undergo the fatigue of supporting it.”

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