It’s hard to figure who to feel sorriest for in the bureaucratic muddle city and county officials have made of the parcel of land at 87th and Damen. In November the city approved developer Patric Greene’s plans to build 59 single-family homes on the site, 15 acres of vacant land just east of the Dan Ryan Woods. Come March, however, the Cook County Board of Commissioners in a rapid and inexplicable turnaround, voted to buy the land and preserve it as a park. Greene says he doesn’t want to sell, and the result is a costly and embarrassing tussle.
“I did everything by the book,” says Greene. “I notified all the officials; I worked with the local aldermen. Now all of a sudden they want to take it away. It doesn’t make any sense.”
The land in question is a railroad right-of-way that cuts through a heavily wooded lot along Beverly Avenue, a bumpy road a few hundred feet east of the forest preserve. Ever since about 1985, residents have wanted to convert the land into a park.
“We wanted to make a bike and walking path out of all the railroad lines that run from about 87th to 131st Street,” says Colin Fitzpatrick, a local resident. “It would be a wonderful place to walk, bike, or jog.”
There was no local opposition to the plan. The railroad track (as well as the forest preserve) is something of a dividing line between white and black neighborhoods. But residents on both sides favored the park.
“We sought help from the state and the Park District, but they turned us down,” says Fitzpatrick. “Eventually, our plan for a long bike path died because parts of the rail line south of 95th were sold and developed. Our best hope was to have the county buy the land at 87th Street, since it’s so close to the Dan Ryan Woods. We really worked on the county. They were working at glacial speed, but I thought they would do it. Quite frankly I thought it was a done deal.”
What Fitzpatrick did not know was that Greene had different intentions for the same parcel.
“I started negotiating with the railroads for that property in about 1987 because I thought it would be a great site for housing,” says Greene. “We did a survey and we know there’s a market for this kind of housing on the south side. We’re talking about two-income, black middle-class families. They want to buy a house, but there’s no place for them to live in the city. So they move to the south suburbs like South Holland or Country Club Hills. Here was our chance to build for them in the city.”
By 1990–while the Forest Preserve District was supposedly looking into buying the land–Greene had already purchased about half of the site and was under contract to purchase the other half.
In the spring of 1990 he notified city officials of his plan to build the homes, which would be placed along Beverly Avenue and five proposed cul-de-sacs. Since the site fell between two wards, Greene had his lawyers notify Aldermen Mike Sheehan (19th) and Jesse Evans (21st).
“Our client proposes to develop the subject premises with 59 semi-customed, single-family residences within the $125,000 to $250,000 price range,” read a March 30, 1990, letter from Greene’s lawyer to Sheehan. “In this context, I draw your attention to the fact that the site overlaps the boundary line between the 19th and 21st Wards . . . Given the magnitude of this project I would appreciate the opportunity to lay this matter before you and your constituents for consideration of its merits.”
In June 1990 Greene started reviewing his plans with city planning officials. Because the project covered more than seven acres, it required a hearing before the Chicago Plan Commission, a planning advisory group.
For Greene, the October 11 hearing was an unmitigated success. Following Planning Department commissioner David Mosena’s recommendation, the Plan Commission unanimously approved the project. On November 7 the City Council (Evans and Sheehan included) voted 47 to 0 in favor of the plan.
“There was never any opposition,” says Greene. “I made adjustments that they wanted. At the Plan Commission meeting, Mosena pointed out that I was saving a lot of the trees and building fewer homes on the site than I could have. After the vote, two of the commissioners came up and shook my hand and told me that they thought this was an outstanding example of in-fill land planning.”
A few days after winning City Council approval, Greene posted a large sign overlooking the lot that read: “North Beverly Estates: New custom homes on private wooded lots.”
“That sign was the first indication I had that anyone wanted to develop the site,” says Fitzpatrick. “I called the Forest Preserve and they said they weren’t aware of any development.”
Those first few phone calls ignited a chain reaction of protest. By this time, Sheehan had left the City Council, having been elected Cook County sheriff. His successor, Ginger Rugai, adamantly opposed the project and demanded to know why she hadn’t been notified about it. City officials said her predecessor, Sheehan, had been notified. But Sheehan denied he knew that the plan touched his ward.
“I believed that they were going to build some homes along Beverly Avenue in the 21st Ward,” says Sheehan. “I didn’t know that there were any plans to build in the 19th Ward. If I knew of plans to build in the 19th, I would have brought the matter to the attention of my Citizen Zoning Committee, as is my practice.”
As for why he voted for the plan, Sheehan says: “That was my last meeting before leaving the council to become sheriff. I wasn’t even on the floor when the vote was taken. I did not know that the plan involved the 19th Ward.”
His denial stunned Greene and left city officials in a difficult predicament. The homes were to be built in Beverly, a middle-class, well-organized community whose Democratic committeeman, Cook County assessor Thomas Hynes, was suddenly under pressure to defeat the project. It would not look good for Rugai, Sheehan, and Hynes to enter into a public dispute with the Daley administration–particularly with the mayoral primary a few weeks away. An internal City Hall investigation blamed the Department of Planning for not having adequately notified Sheehan of the plan.
“It is certainly our intent and our custom to notify aldermen when a project is going through in their ward,” says a spokesman for the Department of Planning. “In this case I cannot verify that anyone in this department ever spoke to Sheehan and I cannot find any correspondence to Sheehan. We wrote to Evans but not to Sheehan. It was our mistake.”
When Greene heard that explanation, he hooted with derision. “They’re setting up the Planning Department to take the fall,” he says. “Of course Sheehan knew about this project. We sent him that letter from my lawyer telling him the project was in the ward. Probably Mike was too busy running for sheriff to realize that there would be a fallout over this project. And once Rugai got in she had to prove that she could get things done for her voters by beating up on me.”
Rugai says that, like the residents, she has always wanted to have a park on the land and that, like Sheehan, she assumed the project was smaller than it turned out to be. “We tried to negotiate with [Greene],” says Rugai. “We said, ‘Forget the cul-de-sacs.’ We would even let him increase the project along Beverly. We just didn’t want him going into the woods. But he refused.”
By January the movement to buy the land was in high gear, and the matter was scheduled to be discussed at a February 14 meeting of the Cook County Board’s real estate committee.
“Sometime after the first of the year it was brought to our attention that a developer was starting to do some work on the project and it was an imminent problem causing irreparable harm to trees,” says board commissioner Charles Bernardini, chairman of the real estate committee. “Before that I didn’t know anything about it.”
For some reason, Greene was not notified of the meeting, which was well attended by his project’s opponents. The committee voted to have the Forest Preserve District’s attorney, Greg Kinczewski, initiate negotiations with Greene to buy the land, leaving county officials to awkwardly explain why they were suddenly deciding to negotiate now, when they could have bought the land for less years ago.
“We’ve got a new board president [Richard Phelan] and a new board,” says Bernardini.
“I can’t speak for the actions of the past boards,” says Kinczewski. “Sometimes these things take time.”
Greene thinks the county board buckled under pressure from Hynes, Sheehan, and Rugai. “The people of the 19th Ward didn’t want it, and the people of the 19th Ward usually get their way,” says Greene.
But if the people of the 19th Ward have so much clout, why did it take them six years to convince the county to buy the land? Perhaps the county was more interested in blocking a specific project than in preserving land for a park.
“All I know is that the city loved my plan,” says Greene. “In fact, on February 14 I attended a fund-raiser for Daley where I met his press secretary, Avis LaVelle. We talked for about 20 minutes and she told me she was very impressed by a suburban-type development in the city.”
On February 15 Kinczewski sent Greene a letter telling him the county wanted to buy his land. One week later, Kinczewski says he was besieged by phone calls from angry 19th Ward residents. “They were in a panic because someone was cutting down the trees,” says Kinczewski. “I called him [Greene] up and said, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I have contracts to keep; I’ve got homes to build.’ I said, ‘What’s your rush?'”
“Kinczewski says I started construction after I got his letter, but that’s a pack of lies,” says Greene. “We had been working on that site since November. We had built one of the cul-de-sacs. We already had a model home up. That letter had nothing to do with us working. It was a mild day, so we worked. In the winter, you have to take advantage of all the mild, dry days you’ve got.”
On Monday, February 25, Kinczewski got Judge Thomas O’Brien to issue a temporary restraining order blocking Greene from working on the site. “Judge O’Brien gave us the TRO, but he was really upset,” says Kinczewski. “He didn’t think we were being fair with Greene. He said, ‘Why did you let this matter go so long?’ I said, ‘It’s true we had received a notice in May about the proposed plan, but it was not something we paid attention to.'”
On March 7 a hearing was held to determine if the restraining order should be made permanent, and O’Brien ruled in Greene’s favor. Immediately afterward, Kinczewski received another temporary restraining order from an appellate judge. In the meantime, Kinczewski says the county will continue negotiations with Greene to buy the land.
“It’s really not such a bad deal for him,” says Kinczewski. “We have to make him an offer on that land at its highest best use. We’re not buying a vacant piece of land; we have to act as though those houses are already built. In other words, he can be paid for those homes without even building them.”
Greene is not impressed. “They’re not compelled to buy anything,” says Greene. “I open the paper the other day and I see that Cook County Hospital is almost broke, and yet they want to spend a million or so dollars buying my land? I’m supposed to stop what I’m doing and say, ‘OK county, let’s negotiate?’ Why should I believe them? They could dillydally around for months and then suddenly decide not to buy the land. Meanwhile all this time’s passed, I’m out of thousands of dollars in legal fees, and I still haven’t built one house.
“Besides, I don’t want to sell the land. I’m a builder; I build homes. I have commitments; there are people who want to buy these homes as soon as they’re built. One guy has even sold his old home. I did everything that was asked of me. I wish the county and city would just stand back and let me build my homes.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.