By Kari Lydersen

No one knows what caused the CTA’s bus barn on the lot at Wilson Yard to go up in flames in October 1996. But the fire started a heated debate between long-warring factions in Uptown. On one side are people who want to see primarily low-income housing on the five-acre lot, which lies under the el tracks between Wilson and Montrose. On the other side are people who want mostly commercial development of some type, whether it’s Costco or Target or local independent retailers. People began taking sides in the spring of 1997, when it was reported that the CTA, facing federal cuts, wanted to sell some of its land to generate revenue.

The Organization for the NorthEast and several other high-profile community groups say that low-income housing must be part of whatever happens at Wilson Yard. They say that having commercial development without housing would simply speed up the gentrification process they’ve been fighting for years. But members of the Uptown Chicago Commission say more low-income housing is the last thing the area needs, because there are already too many people without jobs in the community. They say Wilson Yard should be used to provide employment for existing residents rather than become a magnet for more low-income residents. “Why are we trying to create an area with a lot of low-income people and no jobs?” asks Mike Pavilon, president of the UCC. “Why would we bring in a lot of low-income people to a place where there aren’t many options except to go on welfare? Would that be smart? Most of the jobs for low-income people are moving to the suburbs. We should create jobs for the people who are here and get housing out on the edges of the city where the jobs are.”

ONE and the UCC represent the two sides in a long-standing conflict in the neighborhood. The UCC is an umbrella organization of block clubs that represents mostly the interests of higher-income property owners. ONE represents social-service and affordable-housing advocates, who believe they’re fighting to keep their clients from being driven out of the area.

Forty-sixth Ward alderman Helen Shiller is firmly in the affordable-housing camp, though she does think community-based retail should be part of the project. When speculation started that the CTA might sell Wilson Yard, the Uptown Community Development Corporation set up a meeting between Shiller, CTA president David Mosena, and representatives from the city and Truman College. Shiller wanted to be sure that the community would be involved in the process of deciding what would be done with the land. “The Department of Housing and the CTA decided they wanted to do a study to see whether it would be viable to do development at Wilson Yard,” she says. “They were just going to hire a consultant who would look at the demographics–which aren’t accurate anyway. I said, ‘Why don’t we instead do a community-driven process?’ To my knowledge, no one’s done this before.” As a result, the Department of Planning and Development and the CTA agreed to fund a planning process and hold off on the sale until the process was complete.

Shiller helped organize a massive survey project that took six months. Thousands of surveys in six languages were distributed, and 1,762 in four languages were returned. The results were presented at two community meetings at Truman College in October, then consultants hired by the city and the CTA put together three proposals–one exclusively retail, one emphasizing affordable housing, and one with a more even split between the two. Focus groups then analyzed these plans and made new suggestions. The consultants will revise the plans and present them to the CTA and the city’s Department of Planning and Development in late November or early December, then a task force–composed of Shiller and representatives of the CTA, the Planning Department, Truman College, and the Uptown Community Development Corporation–will evaluate the plans. The CTA and the Planning Department will make the final decision sometime in early 1999.

Sean Keenan, executive director of the UCC, says that the survey process was deliberately manipulated to favor low-income housing. The surveys listed 34 possible uses of the area, including theaters, light manufacturing, and specific retail stores. Also listed was “other housing–be specific” with a blank next to it. Someone typed “low-cost housing” in the blank on many of the surveys before they were distributed and added a note asking people to check the typed-in option. A total of 570 people checked it, making it the most popular option. “A lot of people just checked that and sent it in,” says Keenan. “This was a planning process facilitated to bring people together who normally don’t see eye to eye, but because of the manipulation of the process, it didn’t succeed in facilitating any consensus.”

Shiller says there was nothing manipulative about typing in low-cost housing as an option. She says she designed the survey and that’s how she intended it to be used. “There were so many potential types of housing that I thought it made more sense to let people write in what they wanted. And we told people to copy it and circulate it.”

Keenan and Pavilon say that the UCC members overwhelmingly want to see large retail magnet stores that will offer the community a wide selection and affordable prices. “We want people to be able to stay in Uptown and spend money in Uptown rather than hopping in their cars to go to Target,” Pavilon says. “What we don’t want to see is another huge mistake like the ones that are being torn down now.” He’s referring to the demolition of public-housing high-rises, though none of the consultants’ plans include such a project.

UCC members believe Shiller has long ignored their input, long failed to give them any real power in decision making in the ward. “There’s a difference between having community meetings and actually having a role in the decision-making process,” says Rae Mindock, president of the Sheridan Park Neighbors Association, which includes the area that borders Wilson Yard and is one of the groups in the UCC. “We felt like we didn’t have any appropriate voice to express what we wanted.” Last year the UCC asked Shiller to form a zoning committee in which they could participate. “When she refused to do that–which we thought was very undemocratic–we started our own,” says Pavilon. “She said she’d rather go around and get people’s opinions–more laissez-faire.”

Shiller says she rejected the UCC’s request for a committee because she believes that such a committee would allow a small group of people, disproportionately higher-income property owners, to make decisions for the entire community. And she believes that the UCC’s interests don’t necessarily reflect that of the rest of the neighborhood. “Every time I run for alderman these same folks have said it’s going to be Cabrini-Green if I’m elected,” she says. “These folks work really hard at doing polarization. They’re on the extreme end of wanting to quicken gentrification. Pavilon has opposed every shelter and low-income, even affordable housing project here. He pushes a very hard not-in-my-backyard philosophy.”

Members of the UCC say they’re just looking out for their community, that it’s Shiller and her supporters who are trying to polarize the neighborhood around issues like Wilson Yard. “It’s not true that the block clubs aren’t inclusive of low-income people,” says Mindock. “In our block club we have residents of subsidized housing. Those are the type of fallacies that are being projected. There are these perceptions being facilitated, but they’re just perceptions. The political forces try to use ‘diversity’ to pit one group against another.”

But the Reverend Randall Doubet-King of the Peoples Church on Lawrence says, “There are people who have been here for two or three years who have this idea of making the neighborhood radically different. There are people who equate safety and quality with upscale development and danger with people of color walking around. This is one of the only places on the north side where African-American people still live, and clearly some of the development going on here is driving them out. I’ve had parishioners forced out and made homeless already.”

Yet Doubet-King doesn’t think Wilson Yard is an ideal spot for housing, because it’s right under the el. He prefers some type of commercial development, though he says the kind that’s chosen will have a big effect on whether affordable housing in other parts of the neighborhood will remain. “If it becomes a strip mall or a Crate & Barrel, it shows they don’t think what we have here now is valuable, because the people here now are not in the position to shop in a Crate & Barrel. Ideally it could be something like the Eastern Market in D.C., where you have people selling everything from stuff out of the alleys to art.”

The UCC isn’t happy that the fate of Wilson Yard may be decided by the task force. “The [Department of Planning and Development] didn’t even consult with groups like ONE, the Chinese Mutual Aid Association, or the UCC,” says Pavilon. “Even though we often don’t agree on things like housing and police protection, ONE is a very good, bona fide organization of elected people who should have been recognized in a project like this–as should the UCC. The DPD in its stupidity just bypassed us.”

DPD spokesman Peter Strazz says the CTA and DPD, who will make the final decision, aren’t obligated to use the task force’s input, though he quickly adds that “everybody’s interests will be taken into account.” He also says that the city might do a study to see whether a Tax Increment Financing district could be used to support the project and that related projects will be considered to increase the impact of the redevelopment, such as taking out the railroad spur just west of Wilson Yard or tearing down buildings to make more land available. “This is a pretty significant property in a densely populated area with a tremendous potential effect on a large number of people,” he says. But he adds that making any commercial development work will require officials to work on problems in the area, “such as the very large and visible homeless population, the drug trade and prostitution, and the overwhelming concentration of social-service organizations.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Mike Pafilon, right, and David Rowe of the Sheridan Park Neighbors Assocation photo by Kathy Richland.