By Ben Joravsky
Only six months ago residents and activists up and down the Clybourn industrial corridor were hailing Mayor Daley. The mayor had rejected a condo development plan that threatened to drive hundreds of high-paying factory jobs out of Chicago.
Now these residents are singing a different song. News is dribbling out of City Hall that Daley may soon allow a multiscreen movie theater or a mall to be erected on the same site, which borders the Vienna Beef hot dog factory between Clybourn and Damen near Fullerton.
Although the community’s buzzing with rumors, nothing official has been confirmed about the latest intentions for the 20-acre industrial-zoned plot, which is owned by Cotter & Company, a wholesale distributor for True Value Hardware.
The developers won’t return calls from reporters, and City Hall spokesmen say only that the matter is pending. “I don’t believe that a formal proposal has been made,” says Greg Longhini, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Planning. “We’ve heard the Cotter people were looking for a commercial deal.”
Privately, however, City Hall sources say the consortium of developers led by Ron Shipka Jr. has too much clout to be stopped on a commercial deal. If so, residents fear it’s only a matter of time before the north side gets what it already has too much of while losing what it desperately needs.
“We don’t need more traffic and congestion. We need jobs,” says Liala Beukema, pastor of the Church of the Good News, a Lakeview parish leading the fight for industrial retention. “We were making progress on getting industries to that site. Now it looks as though the city has undercut our efforts.”
The Cotter property debate is charged by a larger conflict between old and new in a changing neighborhood, or what some social scientists call the “suburbanization” of the city. As hard as it may be for many newcomers to imagine, much of Lincoln Park and Lakeview was once blue-collar, with residents earning a living in the companies that lined Elston and Clybourn.
Starting in the 1970s, however, wealthier professionals began creeping further and further west, creating an odd mix of class and ethnicity that changed the area in countless ways. Real estate prices soared, and some factory owners, unable to resist the high prices developers offered, sold their property for residential development. Many of the new residents were married couples with two cars. Suddenly there was less parking and more traffic on the streets. To accommodate the newcomers’ shopping needs (Weiboldt’s and Goldblatt’s weren’t trendy enough), factories along Elston and Clybourn gave way to sprawling malls with huge parking lots. Ironically, the north side began to look more like the same suburbs many of these new urban residents had fled.
As a result of the demographic changes, the blue-collar workforce along the Clybourn and Elston corridors has been more than halved since the 70s, falling from 40,000 to about 15,000. The city has recently attempted to stem the outflow of industrial jobs by creating several planned manufacturing districts, in which zoning restrictions are used to limit residential or commercial development. The city’s also sunk more money into construction, to make sure bridges and roads were fitted to bear the weight of heavier trucks. Daley even offered tax breaks for companies staying in the area.
“The purpose was to retain and attract new industries,” says Mike Holzer, director of the New City YMCA’s Local Economic & Employment Development (LEED) Council, which supports industrial retention. “These protective corridors did the job of convincing industries that they would not have to be concerned with residential encroachment. I think we were making strides to reverse the trend of industries leaving.”
Despite these efforts, blue-collar residents were dealt a staggering setback when they could neither persuade nor coerce Stewart-Warner from closing its enormous auto parts production facility on Diversey. Instead, hundreds of jobs were lost as the Warner plant, with its landmark tower, was demolished to make way for something called Landmark Village, a gated complex of high-priced town houses. City officials now concede they might have worked harder to bring industry to the site.
“It’s a walled city. We can’t even get in to leaflet,” says Beukema. “They can drive down our streets, but we can’t drive down theirs. They’re in our community but they’re not a part of it. The architecture doesn’t even match the surrounding homes. And just think of all those families Stewart-Warner once supported.”
The fight over the Cotter property is particulary important to Beukema because many of her parishioners (most of whom live in the Lathrop homes, a CHA low-rise complex on Clybourn) are eager to find decent-paying industrial jobs close to home. “We have to ask ourselves what happens to the community when we allow these kinds of jobs to leave,” says Beukema. “We’ve got blue-collar workers driving out to Arlington Heights because they can’t find a job close to home.”
Last year, Cotter, which has moved most of its operations to another location, announced it was selling its land to Shipka, who planned to build 500 condos there. President Dan Cotter argued that the company should be free to sell its land for as much as it could get. (Cotter expected to make about $17 million by selling the property for residential development, as opposed to an estimated $5 million if it were sold for industrial development.) He was supported by local alderman Terry Gabinski, who challenged opponents to imagine what they would do in a similar situation.
Some residents bought this argument, but others disagreed, particularly after Vienna Beef officials said they’d have to move, maybe even out of Chicago, if condos came next door. “Vienna argued that you can’t have upscale condos next to a sausage factory. People would be complaining about noises and smells, even though the factory was there first,” says Beukema. “If Vienna left, that would be devastating because many other industries would follow and we’d lose hundreds of other jobs. I don’t believe one property owner’s profits are more important than a community’s needs.”
Residents also worried about congestion. “We wanted to know where the parks and the schools were to accommodate all these new people,” says Beukema. “Shipka said he was targeting young couples, first-time buyers. And traditionally these people move to the ‘burbs as soon as they have kids. I thought, ‘Great, transients!’ If we put an SRO on the corner everyone would have a fit. But it’s OK I guess to clear away industries for wealthy transients.”
Beukema and her allies put together a coalition that included the Lake View Citizens Council, the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Vienna, and the LEED Council. “We got involved because we believe a healthy community is a diverse community,” says Maribel-Mata Benedict, president of the Logan Square group. “A vibrant community needs good jobs.”
On March 1, Daley met with Vienna Beef cochairman James Bodman. Three days later the mayor came out against the zoning request, declaring, “Are you kidding? You can’t have condo developments right next to a sausage plant.” Residents and Vienna Beef officials showered Daley with praise, while initiating meetings with city officials and business leaders to see if new industry could be brought to the site. By early July ten companies had expressed some interest; but that’s when Crain’s Chicago Business reporter Greg Hinz broke the news that “sources say a proposal to develop [the Cotter site] for commercial use could be inked within 30 days.”
A few days later Lerner reporter Pat Butler dug out more details. He wrote that Shipka had formed a consortium with three other developers: Bruce Abrams, Jack Higgins, and Michael Marchese. Abrams told Butler that their plan “calls for razing the complex to make way for a retail development.”
Since then a cautious silence has draped the matter, as almost everyone who would know either says nothing or speaks off the record. (Not knowing Daley’s position, most observers are apparently too afraid to say anything that might offend him.)
As for city officials, they say off the record–perhaps preparing for later on-the-record statements–that malls and movie theaters can coexist with sausage factories. And they note that Daley “only said he was against residential development–he never said anything about commercial development.”
(In which case, the mayor’s proving to be as sly as his father. Richard J. Daley perfected the ability to leave listeners assured they had heard what they wanted to hear, regardless of what he actually said.)
At least Beukema and her allies aren’t afraid to say they feel duped and double-crossed. “We were working on the basis of assurances from city planners that they would support the efforts to retain industry,” Beukema says. “Now those same city planners won’t return our calls.”
Beukema insists that the city would be better served by keeping the land industrial. “What’s the point of having an industrial zone if you constantly let other development nibble away at it?” she says. “What scares me most is that the city seems to have no plan. It’s almost as though if you’ve got the money you can build what you want.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Liala Beukema photo by Randy Tunnell.