Sunday, August 17, 2008

Pat Dowell Hates on U of C for Buying Empty Buildings and Vacant Lots

posted by chicago pop

Stop #1 on the Pat Dowell Anti-Development Tour

Chicago 3rd Ward Alderman Pat Dowell just had a NIMBY coming-out party.

Or at least it looks like she is trying to get in the Club. And nothing helps score some NIMBY street cred better than hating on the University of Chicago.

But it's not just hating on the U of C that makes you a NIMBY -- if that were the case, we'd have to include hundreds of College students -- it's how you hate on the U of C that makes you a NIMBY.

To really get street cred as a NIMBY, you have to be stuck in the 60s, the way Pat Dowell accused her 3rd Ward Aldermanic predecessor Dorothy Tillman of being "stuck in the 80s" before walloping her in the 2007 city council elections.

You have to believe, like the greatest Hyde Park NIMBYs, that what happened in the period of Urban Renewal, racial turnover, Civil Rights, and inner city decay formed a template that will forever govern the operation of Chicago politics.

You have to think that the grass-roots organizations that were formed then, over 2 generations ago, if not before (whether the Hyde Park Co-Op, the Harper Court Foundation or The Woodlawn Organization), are still relevant and effective, and that the stories these organizations tell about themselves are accurate interpretations of history.

Most importantly, when you get a chance to build something useful on a vacant lot or empty building, you say "No thanks," and make arguments about why you should be able to control and obstruct the buying and selling of private property.

Buy this land? How dare you!

Dowell makes it very clear what she wants in her letter, sent to U of C President Robert Zimmer, Mayor Daley, and, um, the Hyde Park Herald (August 13, 2008).

She doesn't want the University buying land in her ward

She says as much, referring to her "expressed reservations about the university purchasing land in the Third Ward at this time."

Dowell claims that the University is being high-handed by not bringing her in on its real estate plans, even though she has made it clear that she doesn't want the University in her neighborhood to begin with.

So why is she surprised she's not in the loop?

Even though NIMBY-ism clearly comes in a variety of colors, it still operates according to the same conservative and self-serving logic, in which paranoid speculations are cooked up on the basis of skewed understandings of changes that happened before a lot of us were born.

The 3rd Ward version of NIMBY-ism -- like one of Dorothy Tillman's hats, it can be taken off a hook and worn by anyone -- comes in a standard package that includes ritual incantations about the "history of the university's relationship with its neighboring communities."

We're all supposed to know what this means, we read about "the history" in the papers, University officials work through their guilt by endlessly admitting that there is a "history", when what this history really boils down to is one incident in Woodlawn that happened 50 years ago in utterly different historical circumstances, and with negative unintended consequences that have left that neighborhood worse off than if it hadn't experienced "the history" in the first place.

The story is this: in the early 1960s, the University of Chicago wanted to use federal urban renewal funds, with the support of municipal condemnations, to bulldoze and redevelop Woodlawn the way it had bulldozed parts of Hyde Park, which would have resulted in the displacement of low-income households the way it already had in Hyde Park.

Big Sky Country in Pat Dowell's 3rd Ward

Local folks mobilized to prevent this. It never happened. Local folks were happy, and then their neighborhood went to hell. Somewhere along the line, at the instigation of The Woodlawn Organization and now-convicted felon and former 20th Ward Alderman Arenda Troutman, they tore down the 63rd Street spur of the El, something increasingly regarded as one of the dumbest decisions in the history of mass transit.

Fast forward half a century: urban-renewed Hyde Park is a diverse community on the upswing, with its fabric more or less intact, anchored by the University of Chicago.

After The Woodlawn Organization achieved its goal of blocking University-led renewal of its eponymous neighborhood, however, it was unable to keep the area from descending into the very death spiral that the University had sought to forestall, losing population, businesses, and tax base over the next 30 years, as middle class blacks followed their white predecessors out the door.

That's a victory? Maybe not, but it provides a useful scapegoat.

This is the myth that Pat Dowell uses to impute Original Sin to the University of Chicago, and to try to score points with 3rd Ward constituents. It's a myth because the times have completely changed, though the racially charged NIMBY rhetoric has not.

My bet is that today's 3rd Ward voters can tell the difference (see Postscript).

The University is not purchasing land with the financial assistance of federal programs, and is not exercising eminent domain, as was done at the time of Urban Renewal. These purchases are not taking place at the height of the Civil Rights movement, when such actions were charged with political meanings and seemed to embody power relations that they no longer have.

Most unfortunately for the Woodlawn Myth of the Predatory University, the 3rd Ward purchases are taking place at the moment of a historic watershed, when inner cities have regained the interest of markets, imaginations, and entrepreneurs, and when smart, equitable urban development is seen to be a key to future sustainable habitation of our planet.

Garfield Green Line CTA Station (rebuilt 2001)

Any major revitalization of the south side wards around the University of Chicago will probably require the capital and involvement of the latter, in some form of public-private partnership that brings jobs to the neighborhood and builds on the efficiencies of existing urban infrastructure.

So let's put away the canned resentment and take advantage of an historic opportunity to get things moving down King Drive.

Either that, or the vacant lots in the 3rd Ward may collect garbage for another few generations.


I was standing in the parkway of Garfield Boulevard taking these pictures of shuttered buildings, empty parking lots, and vacant land, when I was approached by a African American man about my age.

"You going to buy it?" he asked, pointing to the lot between King and Prairie.

"No," I said, "someone else already has."

"I hope they do something with it," the guy told me. "What we need around here are more jobs. These people want jobs. That building's been empty for 10 years. Someone needs to do something with it."

So I told him that the University of Chicago bought it, and some other lots around here, but that his Alderman Pat Dowell doesn't want the University to own land in her ward.

The guy didn't have a response to that. What he did say was that "we need development that pushes out the people who don't care about the neighborhood, and keeps the people who do."


!&# said...

I had understood from a Chicago Public Radio news report that the University had lied about its intentions when confronted with the suspicions and bought the land secretly. We only know because Dowell raised a fuss. The University used shell companies to make the purchase.

Perhaps this kind of secret mucking-about in other neighborhoods and the history of not-so-benign meddling is the reason Dowell is upset?

chicago pop said...


Thanks for the Chicago Public Radio link. Some interesting comments there.

What you call secret mucking-about is, unfortunately, the way business is done in this country. Untill the Aldermen are granted comprehensive powers in a police state to be informed of and control all transactions, two parties can negotiate privately. They can even use shell companies.

If you are making acquisitions from a number of smaller sellers, in an area where the Alderman has said you should stay out (on the basis of no legal authority to keep them out) the buyer has every interest in keeping the whole thing under wraps until they have sealed the deal.

When Dowell was campaigning against Tillman -- on a platform of economic development and change in the 3rd Ward, mind you -- she argued that Tillman should have foreseen gentrification in the 3rd and prepared for it.

The same argument should be tossed back at Dowell: even without the possibility of the Olympics in 2016, things are changing around Washington Park, and it should be no shocker if the U of C wants to put in a TOD at the Garfield Green Line stop. In fact, she should have been talking to the U of C from the get-go about how to make that happen.

That's not mucking around. That's a no-brainer.

Richard Gill said...

As edj said in his August 15 comment, Alderman Dowell may just be "showing her independence" prior to working on some agreement with the University of Chicago. Dowell is probably kicking herself for not having approached the U of C in the first place, about investing in the 3rd Ward. That would have shown some real aldermanic leadership, but no chance for faux angry grandstanding. Now she has to play catchup.

So, thanks to private property rights and a free marketplace, a chunk of real estate near the Garfield "L" station is now in responsible hands. This will help to avoid a lot of the claptrap construction that is sure to accompany the Olympics. More to the point, Chicago has only about a 25 percent shot at landing the Olympics, and there is no unanimity in the city that bringing the games to Chicago would be a good thing. Good development, insulated (to the extent possible in Chicago) from political meddling, will be important, with or without the games. Alderman Dowell's constituents may see that, even if she doesn't want to see it.

mchinand said...

I think Dowell should read your postscript for what should really matter to her, I'm sure many of her constituents feel the same way. I checked out the Cook County Assessors website to see if they have any property sale information (none that I could see, but some at and noticed the property in your second photo is listed as "Supermarket". I don't know Woodlawn besides traveling on Garfield to get to the Dan Ryan, are there any real supermarkets? Maybe in the strip mall on the east side of the Dan Ryan, just north of Garfield.

Also, is there any rhyme or reason to some properties along that stretch being listed as Garfield while others are 55th St?

Stephen said...

It is understandable, even without the Olympics, the UofC would have an interest in developing that property. Too many students and visitors to UofC and Hyde Park feel more comfortable taking the Red Line down to HP rather than the Green Line. Many people are basically uncomfortable waiting for the bus at the Green Line stop. Being dropped in the middle of a shuttered and dilapidated urban desert can make just about anyone slightly uncomfortable, let alone young college students not from around HP.

It seems to me, much of the Aldermanic antagonism of the UofC is grandstanding; I'd have to think anyone would recognize development at that location can only be good. EDJ may very well be right.

mchinand said...

The 3 properties listed as already likely purchased in the HP Herald article are listed as being purchased by Chicago Title Land Trust (if I'm reading it right). It seems reasonable that the University would use such a company to handle its property assets outside of the campus proper. It doesn't appear they used several different 'shell' companies (plural, as !&# implied in his post) to hide the fact that they were the buyer.

Richard Gill said...

In response to mchinand's question about inconsistent use of "55th Street" or "Garfield Blvd" on property listings...the difference probably lies in which clerks worked on documenting the various parcels, and when it was done. You will likely find similar inconsistencies along Cermak Road (22nd Street), Martin Luther King Drive (South Park Avenue), Pershing Road (39th Street), Roosevelt Road (12th Street), and Nimby Terrace (Stony Island Avenue immediately north of 59th Street). Just kidding on that last one.

Anonymous said...

And there's the root of it: beyond all the political grandstanding by aldermen, community "activists", and loudmouthed malcontents, there's a whole community of people there who want progress, want their neighborhood improved and want the successful commercial enterprises and jobs that usually come along as a result. Nobody likes walking past scary, rundown, boarded-up storefronts and weed-filled vacant lots, especially when its in their own neighborhood.

These are called "regular folks" and they want the same thing almost everyone wants: a decent job and a safe, clean place to live.

Isolationist policies have never helped anyone.

edj said...

The Green Line stop that I usually use always has a lot of people around and does have significant amounts of economic activity. It's got that liquor store right next door that always makes it interesting. And how else would I know where to buy "Blue Square" from the local Junior Achievement Chapter? The police must not be big customers because selling stops whenever squad cars drive by. New development would just disrupt all of this economic activity.

edj said...

I am curious to see if Dowell's comments resonate in her ward. I mean, she did defeat Dorothy Tillman after being attacked as a university front. There must be a feeling that something needs to be done to get development going.

Does the university go to Toni Preckwinkle or Leslie Hairston first before they buy property in their wards? Since when do people and organizations have to go to the government to get property sales approved in advance?

What does "not so-benign" even mean? that's another one of those statements thrown out that we are simply supposed to accept on face value.

I don't see the university as having a "history of not-so-benign meddling." They are a big organization and a big employer. They want their students and their employees to have a safe and healthy environment. Encouraging development is one of those ways of doing that.

My brother went to the U of C B School in the early 80s. He tells the story of the first day of orientation when a speaker told them about the security phones on most any corner. They were told that if you just lifted the receiver, a squad car would be there within two minutes. Someone in the back of the room yelled, "Yeah. So they can find your body."

The university going into an area tells people and other developers that they want a safe area and will hopefully help encourage development.

chicago pop said...

Just an aside: Dowell had my moral support against Tillman in 2007. Which is funny, because rising-star Obama and every other establishment black politician backed Tillman in the 2007 3rd Ward race. Except Jessie Jackson Jr., who seems to be the only guy around who has an above average record of backing winning horses from among the next generation of post-protest black politicians (he backed Dowell).

He backed the loser in the 3rd, and left some bad aftertaste in his home 4th Ward.

Food for thought.

David Farley said...

In contrast to the gentleman C. Pop encountered, the Herald this week found a resident who suggested "[The University] could buy businesses, let them get vacant and not redevelop them for a long time."

Zig and Lou said...

Interesting front page article in the Herald today. A property owner that is not interested in selling to a party that has not made an offer to buy. Is that actually news?

Richard Gill said...

No, it's probably just the Herald looking for a way to try to embarrass the U of C, by conjuring up some "news" where there isn't any. The Herald tries to appeal to a diminishing population of True Believers. Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble.

I'm guessing that's why the Pat Dowell story is still on the Herald's website as "Breaking News", although the same story has been up there for more than a week.

tony said...

I know this story is really onld but does anyone know that Pat Dowell's husband is a developer. Anyone who can put 2 and 2 together can see that it's a good chance that she doesn't want U of C in her ward simply so she can benefit from the lots personally. I mean com'on, this is probably the reason she is approving the demolition of building that are being worked on without giving the owner adequate notice. She hides behind the "Emergency Demolition" list. I wonder how she would feel if she came home to where her house used to be.

X-Factor said...

Some of our communities in the ward are in dire need of a comprehensive, community improvement plan. This will help rebuild and restore every neglected area of the 3rd ward. The plan must include the following; better city services, more resources for our parks, expanding social and health services, create jobs and equitable resourced schools in impoverished area’s of the ward.

To be successful in the revitalizing of our communities, all stakeholders educators including Uof C)& other city colleges, schools, churches, law enforcment, children, families, business owners, and Alderman Pat Dowell) must be included in the process.

We (the stakeholders) must all join forces to address all issues that will improve our ward and city. We need an Alderman, that will include all stakeholders at the decision table before approving anything that influences the outcome of the residents and community.

Despite the challenges we face, there are workable solutions available that will strengthen our ethics, promote jobs and economic development, reduce crime throughout our neighborhoods, and improve the quality of life FOR ALL RESIDENTS.