For the last 30 years or so development has steadily inched west along Irving Park Road toward the city’s boundaries. Only one parcel remains undeveloped, the land just east of Harlem, which is still a marshy forest, home to migratory birds, deer, and even coyotes.

But the city has targeted the site for a major project, anchored by a Home Depot superstore. Longtime resident Joyce Swider says, “They’re trying to stuff development down our throats.”

City officials respond by saying the situation is complicated. “There are no Cliffs Notes versions to this story–it’s more like War and Peace,” says the local alderman, Tom Allen of the 38th Ward. “There’s a lot at stake out here.”

Allen says the vacant land is part of the 235-acre Dunning site, which is roughly bounded by Montrose on the north, Irving Park on the south, Harlem on the west, and Narragansett on the east. In 1868 a former Civil War officer named Andrew Dunning donated the land to the state to be used for medical or social purposes. For most of the last century it was home to the Cook County Infirmary and Insane Asylum, later called the Chicago State Hospital, a psychiatric institution that housed about 5,000 patients. Allen says, “This was an enormous institution, a huge self-contained complex of buildings behind a big wrought-iron fence–installed even before Mayor Daley made these fences popular.”

The institution was surrounded by acres of vacant land. “It was like having a forest right in the neighborhood,” says Swider, who grew up in the area in the 1950s. “There was a creek back there and marshlands. It wasn’t an official forest preserve, but it served the same purpose. I remember the boy who grew up next door to me used to take a little boat to the pond out there.”

In 1965 the state closed the mental hospital. “There was a transition in mental health from institutions to outpatient treatment,” says Allen, “so you no longer had a need for the big asylums. So the question became, What to do about all that land?”

Over the years, slivers of it were taken over by various commercial, residential, and manufacturing projects. Wright College moved to a spot near Narragansett and Montrose. A shopping mall was constructed along Irving just west of Narragansett. A condominium complex went up west of the mall. Two social-service agencies–the Maryville medical complex and the New Horizon Center for the Developmentally Disabled–moved into old asylum buildings along Oak Park Avenue just north of Irving.

All that remains of the open land is a 30-acre chunk between Nordica and Forest Preserve avenues. As far as Allen’s concerned, that land is sorely underused. “With all due respect to the people clamoring for open space, this is not that beautiful out there,” he says. “I’ve been chasing out the fly dumpers for years.” And the Illinois Department of Transportation also has two truck-storage facilities on the site. “IDOT has all of this junk and trucks just west of Oak Park Avenue,” he says. “Their buildings are in bad shape and need to be moved. They’re not very pretty.” He adds that both Maryville and New Horizons have outgrown their facilities and want to move elsewhere. “Also Wright College needs land for athletic fields.

“I think we’ve wasted a great opportunity by allowing this area to go underdeveloped throughout the boom years of the 1990s,” Allen continues. “How could we allow this land to stay off the tax rolls? We’re talking about lost revenue for the city and lost jobs for the community. We’re not serving the education needs of Wright or the social-service needs of Maryville and New Horizon.”

Over the past few years Allen and city planning officials have been working with the state, which still owns the land, to put together a development deal. He says that by June they’d packaged an arrangement under which the state would cede the land to the city. “Maryville and New Horizons would move to the east side of Oak Park Avenue,” Allen says. “You’d also have ten acres for public open space that would be maintained by Wright College and some residential single-family homes. West of Oak Park Avenue, IDOT gets 15 acres for their trucks and equipment, and then, as you get further west toward Harlem, you’d have the Home Depot.”

The money would come from a consortium of investors, the Read-Dunning Developers, who are represented by John George, a well-connected zoning lawyer. “We’ve been very open and up-front about all of this,” says Allen. “I had letters sent to all the property owners within 250 feet of the site inviting them to come to an open meeting about the proposal. That meeting was in June.” Afterward, he organized bus tours of the site: “I wanted residents to see what was there and to imagine what would come.”

The meeting and bus tours didn’t win over all the residents, notably a vocal group of opponents led by Swider and John Videckis, president of the Austin-Irving Community Council. “This is our last big piece of open land,” says Videckis. “It’s unique. We shouldn’t make it like everything else.”

Videckis, Swider, and their allies say the city should hold on to whatever remaining open land it has. “I remember when I moved out here 15 years ago,” says Videckis. “It was low-density development. It was so quiet, like a small town. By eight o’clock at night everything shut down. It was like living in the country. Now it’s like living in the Loop during rush hour. Irving Park wasn’t built to handle all of this kind of traffic–it’s just one big bottleneck.”

“We need parks, we need open space,” says Swider. “This huge, glorious tract of land is down to 30 acres, and now they want to throw that away. They’re filling in wetland, taking away a creek. When is anyone going to say, ‘Enough’?”

Swider says she hasn’t been persuaded by the city’s arguments in favor of development. “On our bus tour Alderman Allen took us by some of [IDOT’s] dilapidated property and tried to talk the deal up,” she says. “I pointed to the condos that are already on the edge of the property and said, ‘This is out of character.’ Alderman Allen said, ‘What’s the matter, Joyce? Are you going to stand in the way of progress? Maybe you should move out of the neighborhood.’ I said, ‘I’ve been here since 1948, and I want to maintain a quality of life.'”

On the record, Mayor Daley has been a vocal advocate for open space. But privately many city officials mock residents who oppose development on the grounds that it will make traffic even more congested. “Yada, yada, yada,” is how one planning official reacted to news that some residents object to the plan. “They don’t want traffic–what else is new?”

City officials say residents are being unrealistic when they push to retain open space, noting that with the current budget cuts there’s barely enough money to maintain existing parks. City officials also don’t understand the opposition to Home Depot. “It’s a great company,” says the planning official. “People should be pleased that they want to come here.” The city has subsidized construction of two Home Depots, at 200 W. 87th and 2555 N. Normandy, but Allen says there’s no subsidy for the one at Irving and Narragansett.

Proposed Home Depot stores at two other city sites–Halsted near Diversey and Kimball at Addison–have ignited local opposition. Residents near those sites have voiced the same objections as Swider: “They generate too much traffic and take business away from other local hardware stores.” She adds, “It’s not that I’m against Home Depot. I just think we have to look at what the impact is.”

Swider says she and her allies have collected more than 600 signatures from residents who oppose the deal. She’s also seeking support from Friends of the Parks, whose executive director, Erma Tranter, says, “It’s a great piece of land, the last great piece of open area out there. When I went out there I couldn’t believe the development along Irving Park. It’s one mall after another, like out in the suburbs. We need to get more information about the site, but clearly that area has the potential for open space.”

Swider thinks the proposal could become a campaign issue in the upcoming aldermanic election if a strong candidate emerges to challenge Allen. But Allen says he’s not concerned about losing votes over the deal: “I don’t think there are too many Home Depots out there. There are a lot of people who like Home Depot. They call our office and say, ‘When is the Home Depot coming?’ So there’s that sentiment out there too.”

Allen says he will force the developers to accommodate community concerns about traffic. “This plan is not set in stone,” he says. “It can be adjusted so there’s not as much traffic on Irving Park. We have control over the deal because it needs a zoning change to go through, but one way or another people have to realize the area can’t remain open. I’d like to see more open space, but is that a reality? I don’t think so. Something’s coming. We have to make the best of it.”

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