Four years ago Mayor Daley promised to put a park on the west side of State Street between Congress and Harrison–an opening in all the concrete and congestion. Today the neighborhood is still congested, but the city has decided to ditch the park–and is entertaining a proposal to build a 30-story, 226-unit condominium complex on the site. “That’s quite a switch,” says Kate Miles, a resident of the area. “I think everyone wants to know how plans for a park turned into a 30-story tower.”

The site is on the northern edge of the South Loop, which is now in the midst of a residential real estate boom. That boom was sparked in part by the growth of nearby universities and colleges–the land between Congress and Harrison on the east side of State Street, for example, has been set aside for a 1,700-unit dormitory that will be shared by DePaul, Roosevelt, and Columbia.

The park was intended for use by local residents and the students at Jones College Prep, a public high school on the southwest corner of State and Harrison. The idea was immediately embraced by South Loop residents, who say their neighborhood desperately needs more open space. “There are no parks close by,” says Lauren Brown, even though Grant Park is only two blocks away. “With all the development going up around here we believe the area could use a break–some green space. So we applauded Mayor Daley’s park idea.”

In 1998 the park seemed a foregone conclusion. There was no major resistance to it, in part because the site wasn’t fully developed. On the north end stood a Burger King, and to its south was a parking lot. As Miles says, “There weren’t any valuable landmarks there.”

That October, Daley publically endorsed the park and suggested it might also be used to honor veterans. Within a few months the Department of Planning and Development published a neighborhood master plan showing a park, and by early 1999 the Board of Education was moving to buy the parking lot and the Burger King.

But negotiations proved tricky. The Burger King lot was purchased and the restaurant destroyed, but the parking lot’s owners wanted more than the board offered. The board, using its power of eminent domain, sued to seize the land. Generally public bodies hold the upper hand in such matters, since few property owners have the time or money to survive drawn-out litigation. But in this case the board blinked first. On November 15, 2000, it officially dropped its eminent domain case and even reimbursed the parking lot owners for their legal fees. Board and city officials say they had no choice–the asking price was just too high. Terri Texley, deputy commissioner for the city’s planning department, says, “The Board of Education just didn’t have enough money to complete the project.”

But many residents and observers suspect the matter’s a little more complicated. At the time the board dropped its case the parking lot owner was asking about $6 million for the land and the board was offering about $2 million. “Generally, what happens in these cases is that a judge will split the difference,” says one board insider. In this case that would mean the board would have to pay about $4 million for the land. “Are you telling me it’s a strain for the city or the board to find an extra $2 million to close this deal?” continues the insider. “Come on. They’ve got the money–if they want to spend it. I think what really happened is that someone high in the Daley administration saw how long the eminent domain thing was taking and said, ‘Screw it. This land’s too valuable to be used as a park anyway.’ So they dropped their case and opened the land up for development.”

In any event, the city didn’t notify residents that the park plans had stalled. “It was just the opposite–they did not suggest that the park idea was in jeopardy,” says Miles, who owns a condo in the Peterson Building at Plymouth and Congress. “When I purchased my condominium [in October of 1999] I checked the master plan for the area, and the corner of State and Congress was still targeted for a park. In fact, the master plan showed a park on that land well into 2001.” Miles says she investigated the matter because the Peterson Building is just west of the parking lot. “I was exercising due diligence, because I understood that there’s a chance that a parking lot in the South Loop might get developed. The real estate agent told me the lot would be developed as a park. I called the planning department to check out what the agent had told me, and I found out that the Board of Education was still in condemnation proceedings. I guess I’m a little inexperienced about condemnation cases. It didn’t occur to me that once they start they can withdraw.”

By the end of 2000 Miles and her neighbors suspected something was fishy, despite the city’s assurances to the contrary. “I remember it was around Christmas of that year when they tore down the Burger King and put up a fence and a sign saying it would be the future site of the Jones Campus Park,” says Miles. “But the fence only went around the old Burger King site on the far corner. I figured something had changed. Why didn’t they fence off the whole lot?”

On October 25, 2001, she got her answer in the Chicago Journal. “State Street parking lots may go residential,” read the headline over staff writer Lydialyle Gibson’s front-page story. According to the article, the city was going to squeeze the park into the tiny Burger King space. The much larger parking lot would probably be reserved for a 30-story condominium built by the Concord Development Corporation.

That was the beginning of nine months of back-and-forth between the developer and the residents. “This could be built today–we have the zoning,” says lawyer Bernard Citron, who represents Concord. “But that’s not the way Concord operates. We don’t just march into communities. We work together with people.”

Meanwhile Miles, Brown, and other residents formed an ad hoc group, the Campus Park Coalition. “We believe a park is the best land use for this site,” says Brown. “We’re not talking about an active park with softball diamonds or a playground–it’s not big enough for that. But we’re talking about a common public space that would be a tremendous asset for generations to come. Think about it. There are about 12 educational institutions in the area, including Jones. This could be a way for those institutions to connect with the community. You could have concerts or art shows there. It could be the site of a farmers’ market.”

Though some residents of adjoining buildings say they fear the Concord tower would block their sunlight, Miles and Brown insist their motives are far less personal. “Our views are going to be blocked once they build the 20-story [dormitory] on the other side of State,” says Brown. “I just think this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something beautiful for the city. Because once the city signs off on development, we lose this public space forever.”

Daley has made no public comment on the matter, but his aides and political allies have been maneuvering to somehow appease both sides. So the planning department helped organize a meeting on the matter on July 31 at a public hall on South Dearborn.

It was a typical planning meeting, in that those who knew what was really going on weren’t there and those who were there either didn’t know or wouldn’t say. Daley was absent, as were Concord’s principals, though they sent their architect (Drew Ranieri), lawyer (Citron), and an assortment of other experts and advisers.

Madeline Haithcock, the local alderman, was given the tough task of describing the city’s position to the crowd of more than 100 residents. “We do need more green space in this community,” she said, “but at this present time we don’t have the money to buy this land.”

“Find a way,” interjected a man in the front row.

“OK, we’ll raise your taxes,” Haithcock countered.

Other residents denounced the city for not being more open. “When I bought in my building I was told there was a plan to build a park there,” said one man, his voice quivering with indignation.

“Who told you that?” asked Haithcock.

“The seller, the real estate agent. It was in the city plan. When you make a plan you make a contract. That contract was broken with the citizenry.”

For the most part, Citron and Ranieri held their tongues in the face of harsh criticism and tough questions from the residents. Ranieri gave a brief presentation about the tower Conrad hoped to build, which would include some retail units and a parking garage along with the condos. He also trotted out a traffic expert who said the building would probably generate less traffic than the existing parking lot.

“Oh, come on,” one man said. “Most of the people who park in that lot come there in the morning, stay all day, and leave in the evening. To say that 60-car lot generates more traffic than your 240-car parking garage is ludicrous.”

Eventually Citron felt compelled to offer the residents a lesson on the facts of life in the city. “With all due respect, anyone facing a parking lot had to know it wouldn’t last,” he said. “I do not lie. Something will be built there, and it will block your windows.”

A few residents proposed that the city broker a swap, giving Concord the right to develop Pritzker Park–a fenced-off rectangle of grass just north of the Harold Washington Library on State–in exchange for the lot. If that didn’t work, they said, they would try to raise money from the nearby colleges and universities to help cover the cost of buying the parking lot.

For the time being, the residents’ strategy is to throw themselves on the mercy of Mayor Daley and hope for the best. “I see this as the beginning of a long process,” says Miles. “I realize there’s not much money right now. But there are other ways of doing this deal. It’s our job to keep up the pressure. You have to be in it for the long haul.”

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