By Ben Joravsky
The residents of West Town made all the right legal, political, and public relations moves in their effort to save the Goldblatt’s building on Chicago Avenue.
They even got a prominent developer interested in buying it and converting it into an artists’ community, along the lines of the Flat Iron Building in Wicker Park.
And guess what? It’s still coming down. “Demolition will begin in a few weeks,” says Stefan Kaluzny, founder of Delray Farms, which intends to build a grocery store on the site.
According to Kaluzny, he and his partners should be free to do pretty much what they want with the building since they own it. Apparently city officials agree; after talking tough in court and the press, they’re conceding defeat, leaving outraged residents to wonder if the city will ever take a strong stand for preservation. “Are there no standards?” asks Gladys Alcazar, a member of the East Village Association, a prominent community group in West Town. “I mean, if a great old building like Goldblatt’s can’t be saved, nothing’s sacred.”
From an aesthetic standpoint the 83-year-old Goldblatt’s building, a classic five-story, terra-cotta beaux art structure just west of Ashland Avenue, is magnificent–the sort of looming presence around which neighborhoods were once built. To many merchants, however, it’s a dinosaur that takes up too much space, doesn’t have enough parking, and requires shoppers to ride elevators or escalators.
Delray contends a grocery store cannot be built inside it. The company felt it was taking a risk just buying the building (for an estimated $1.75 million) and moving to the area, a mix of ethnicities and classes. Indeed, Delray sees itself as an urban pioneer, creating jobs and providing services for neighborhoods other businesses overlook.
“We began three years ago and we now operate 14 fresh markets in the greater Chicagoland area,” says Kaluzny. “Out of nowhere we have invested millions of dollars in developing stores to bring neighborhood shopping back to the city. We present economic opportunities. It’s an urban concept. It’s neighborhood shopping. It’s a throwback to the way people shopped years ago when you could go down the street and talk to the butcher behind the counter and buy the foods that you would prepare that night for your meal.”
Delray certainly didn’t expect opposition. Indeed, local merchants and First Ward alderman Jesse Granato reacted with gusto last July when Delray unveiled its plans to clear the building for a low-lying cement-block replacement.
But apparently Delray misread the wider community, for opposition quickly spread. The area wasn’t so economically depressed that residents would welcome any development scheme. On the contrary, residents feared that destroying Goldblatt’s (even if it was vacant) would spur the trend toward suburbanization.
“Everywhere you go in the city you see shopping strips and malls. They tear down old buildings without realizing what we’re missing,” says Alcazar. “And it’s not just here. Drive along Kedzie and you see strip center after strip center. Go down North Broadway, or 31st Street in Bridgeport–it’s the same thing. I was born in Chicago. I grew up around here. I stay here because I love it. I don’t want it to look like Schaumburg. If I wanted Schaumburg I’d move out there.”
The residents’ efforts won favorable articles in the papers and support from preservationists and even convinced Granato to change his tune. (“I told the people that if they could show me the neighborhood opposed it, I would go with them,” says Granato. “And they did.”) On August 22 the residents formally requested that the city declare the building a landmark. Three days later Delray applied for a demolition permit.
For a moment, Alcazar and her allies rejoiced in their good timing, figuring demolition would be delayed for at least a year while the city entertained their landmark request.
“Our request got there first,” says Alcazar. “I can’t imagine them going the other way. Let’s say we requested landmark status after Delray sought their demolition permit. Delray would argue that we were unfairly trampling on their rights to do what they want with their property.”
But Delray sued the city for withholding a demolition permit, and a Cook County Circuit Court judge ruled that Delray should be allowed to demolish the building because the city can only deny a permit for buildings already awarded landmark status.
Residents and preservationists begged the city to appeal, arguing that the decision made a mockery of the landmark process. “According to this ruling, a landlord can avoid landmark status by tearing down his building as soon as someone asks to have it considered for landmark designation,” says Alcazar. “It deprives preservationists of a right to have a hearing on a building’s value. The city should appeal just to send a message that they take landmarking seriously.”
But the city backed off, saying it did not want to spend more legal fees on a case it didn’t think it would win. Instead, it asked Delray to consider counteroffers. So in November Delray asked developers to submit their best and brightest ideas for transforming the Goldblatt’s building.
In February, Alcazar and her husband, Rich Anselmo, went downtown to meet with Delray and city officials and review the prospects. It was not, says Alcazar, a satisfactory meeting. Delray said no acceptable offers had been submitted and therefore the building would come down.
But what about Bob Berger’s proposal? Alcazar asked. Berger, a prominent developer whose family owns many properties around town, says he offered to buy the building for $3 million and convert it into a mixture of artists’ studios and commercial spaces, with Delray operating out of the ground floor. “I’d like it to be along the lines of the Flat Iron Building, which I own,” says Berger. “It’s a beautiful building with great light. I’d do almost anything to save it.”
But Delray officials were unenthusiastic. “All I can say about that deal is that Berger did not offer three million in cash,” says Kaluzny. “I can’t talk about the particulars.”
As far as city officials are concerned, they waged a valiant struggle but the issue’s dead. There’s nothing they can do to make Delray accept Berger’s offer, they can’t afford to buy the property at Delray’s asking price, and their best legal minds say appealing the lawsuit is hopeless. “They intended to demolish the building as soon as next week,” says Olga Domchenko, a spokeswoman for the Department of Planning. “They own the building and there’s nothing anyone can do.”
Even Granato, who as alderman supposedly controls all development in his ward, concedes defeat. “We tried everything and it didn’t work,” says Granato. “It’s their building. They didn’t get a good offer. Who am I to tell them what to do? I can’t tell you how much to sell your car for. I can’t tell them how much to sell their building for.”
Alcazar disagrees that the city’s helpless, saying it’s a matter of priorities. The same city that showers millions on a corporate law firm to protect a ward map against charges of racial discrimination can surely find the cash in the bowels of its budget to fight to save valuable buildings. Or a deal could be struck offering Delray nearby land to build on. Or Delray could be paid to go away. Or Delray could redesign its plans to fit into the first floor (as Berger suggests). “Where is it written that all layouts have to be the same? Even McDonald’s occasionally varies its layout when they have to,” says Alcazar. “The fact is that Delray didn’t care enough to make it happen. It’s not a priority. I still don’t think Delray took us seriously. I still think this whole counterproposal process was set up to fail. To me it’s just so insulting and depressing that these people who don’t live here can come in and dictate how we will live.”
Kaluzny predicts that it’s only a matter of time before residents, even ardent opponents, become happy Delray shoppers. “They should just give us a chance,” he says. “I think we’ll win them over.”
But Alcazar says residents will never forgive Delray if Goldblatt’s is destroyed. “Their attitude’s condescending, like ‘We’re doing you a really big favor coming here ’cause you live in a ghetto and you should take whatever we give you.’ We’re not giving up. We’ll march on Granato’s office and call the mayor and press our case before the City Council. We think they can stop this by simply telling Delray no. They should fight as hard for this as they did for Meigs Field.” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Gladys Alcazar photo by Nathan Mandell.