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UPTOWN CHICAGO COMMISSION

Uptown in the News  

January 24, 2003
Chicago READER
Heartbreak Hotel
Development dollars are in the offing for Uptown—as long as it's willing to tear down the decrepit Plymouth Hotel. Nevertheless, a pair of novice preservationists are making a last-ditch bid to save the historic structure.

By Ben Joravsky and Nadia Oehlsen


Last September the City Council OK'd a $7.1 million project that would tear down a historic hotel on Broadway near Lawrence, build a two-story condo complex on the site, and put more condos and a Borders in two adjoining buildings. The three had been sitting empty since Goldblatt's vacated them in 1998, and the city hailed the deal, calling it a big boost for Uptown. It would give the neighborhood the bookstore it's always wanted and some of the development it needs.

Lots of residents were unhappy, and two of them had come up with an alternative plan. City officials largely shrugged them off. One neighborhood activist says the new plan was "designed by two kids who have never done anything like this before."

It's been four months since the council signed off on the deal, yet the Plymouth is still standing, and the two kids—David Schneider, a 22-year-old undergraduate at Northwestern University, and Christie Phillips, a 33-year-old organic-farming activist—show no signs of going away. "It's not over yet," says Schneider. "We won't give in, because we think there's too much at stake."

Ironically, the Plymouth was once earmarked for protection by some of the same Uptown power brokers who are now letting it be destroyed. Five and a half years ago leaders of the Uptown Community Development Corporation, a not-for-profit group with close ties to 48th Ward alderman Mary Ann Smith, came up with the idea of making all of the buildings along Broadway (roughly from Gunnison to Leland) part of a city landmark district, meaning their owners couldn't destroy or significantly alter them without permission. "We are seeking this designation not only to protect specific historic assets, but also to provide developmental incentives to proposals that acknowledge and respect Uptown's architectural legacy," Upcorp leaders Suellen Long and Mimi Slogar wrote in their August 1997 application.

Long and Slogar pleaded with the city to move quickly on the matter, noting, "Some of our landmarks are in poor physical condition, under-utilized, or vacant. In the direct path of Chicago's real estate boom, most remain unprotected against the capricious motives of tomorrow's market." Alderman Smith agreed, pointing out that Uptown's architectural legacy was a strength that could be used to draw investment to the area. "I am writing in strong support of the Uptown Community Development Corporation's efforts to secure a place on the Commission on Chicago Landmarks' 1998 work plan," she wrote in a 1997 letter to the city's planning department. "Uptown's history and historic architecture set it apart from other communities. While working to redevelop our commercial areas, we must find ways to preserve not only individual buildings, but the district's character as a whole. This designation would help us achieve this objective."

The Daley administration seemed eager to comply with Smith's request. With such powerful neighborhood support it seemed like a shoo-in. For the better part of 1998, staff in the planning department's landmarks division dedicated dozens of hours to surveying property in the area, meeting with residents, and preparing a recommendation for the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, which would have the final say on the proposal.

Then in December 1998 Upcorp sent a letter to the landmarks commission asking it to delay any decision. "Several major property owners and tenants, including Uptown National Bank, Aragon Entertainment, and Jam Productions, have contacted us to express concern about the limits that this potential district may impose on future development," wrote Slogar and Rodrigo del Canto, cochair of Upcorp's planning committee. "These owners have track records of supporting community concerns, yet are apprehensive about committing to a direction they know little about. As we consider establishing this district, Upcorp wants to ensure consistent communication, not only with these anchors, but also with every property owner within the proposed boundaries."

The landmarks division staff was surprised. How could the property owners not have known the implications of a city landmark designation? Hadn't Upcorp discussed it with them? Had some unacknowledged issue caused Smith and Upcorp to change their minds?

The proposal was left hanging until May 1999, when landmarks division staff finally conceded that it was dead for lack of local support. "Unless the community decides they are interested in pursuing local landmark designation, it is not our intent to spend any additional time" on the matter, wrote Jim Peters, deputy commissioner of the division, in a memo to Albert Friedman, the acting chair of the landmarks commission.

It still isn't totally clear why Upcorp and Smith changed their minds about creating a city landmark district. Long now says Upcorp never actually supported one, despite the letters saying it did. Smith says she was disappointed but flip-flopped because her constituents wanted her to: "To a certain extent I do what the community wants." And why did the community change its mind? "Because when the various community groups got together and started looking at what it would actually take to restore these buildings," says Smith, "they felt that they needed to build some flexibility in."

The buildings up and down Broadway were now vulnerable to what Long and Slogar had warned against. And by late summer 1999 Joseph Freed and Associates, a development company from Wheeling, had put a down payment on the Goldblatt's complex and would soon decide to knock down the Plymouth Hotel.

The complex is located on a triangular slab of land near the el tracks on the 4700 block of North Broadway. The Plymouth Hotel is on the south, an old bank is on the north, and the original department store building is in the middle. The hotel, a 130-room, four-story building with wire-cut brick and terra-cotta, was built in 1912 and served as home to Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, and other entertainers when they came to town to shoot movies at Chaplin's nearby Essanay Studio. The two-story, neoclassical bank was built in 1914, and the department store, originally Loren Miller & Company, went up the following year. The store did so well that in 1924 its owner bought the bank building and knocked out walls to increase his retail space. Four years later he expanded into the first floor of the hotel.

But business slumped during the Depression, and the store went under. In 1931 the Goldblatt brothers began leasing the three buildings, gutting the rest of the old hotel and turning part of it into retail space. In the 60s they remodeled again, paying little attention to aesthetics—among other things, they bricked up the former bank's arched windows. Finally in 1998 Goldblatt's closed its doors for good.

By then the complex was dilapidated, but the Freed company saw buildings that could be marketed to the upwardly mobile professionals who were streaming into Uptown. According to Dennis Harder, Freed's development manager, the plan was to demolish the Plymouth, replacing it with a sleek ten-story condominium building, and to rehab the middle and north buildings, turning them into condos with a national retail operation on the ground floor, perhaps a Borders.

In search of funding for the deal, Freed commissioned a study on making the same stretch of Broadway Upcorp had proposed turning into a landmark district into a Tax Increment Financing district, an idea community groups and both local aldermen had been considering for some time. TIFs allow the city to borrow money to finance a development project and repay the loan with the extra property taxes generated by the development.

In January 2001 the local aldermen hosted a planning session where residents were encouraged to say how they would spend any TIF money generated in the area. Everyone tried to look cooperative as the various factions pushed their agendas. There were, for instance, low-income-housing activists—led by the Organization of the NorthEast, Community of Uptown Residents for Affordability and Justice, and Alderman Helen Shiller, whose ward is next door and would be included in the TIF district—who wanted to make sure that at least some of the money would be used to provide low-income housing. Other groups of residents thought Uptown already had too many poor people. There were local merchants who were concerned that the TIF proceeds would be used, as often has been the case, to drive them out of business by subsidizing the operations of larger competitors. There were preservationists who clung to the hope that old buildings, including the Plymouth, would be saved. And there were characters, including an older woman with an eastern European accent who interrupted one discussion to announce that her mother "was Al Capone's whore. She had his baby."

City officials were at the meeting, as was Harder, who would spend months trying to please the factions and factions within factions. He says it was one of the most difficult deals his company had ever arranged. "This was all plowing new territory," he says. "This project is among the more complex that I've ever worked on, and it really has a lot of political and economic issues related to it."

Yet Harder proved to fairly adept at working with the various groups. He won over some housing activists by agreeing to donate $1.25 million in TIF money to Century Place Development Corporation, a nonprofit that's converting the Leland Hotel, which is across the street from the Plymouth, into a single-room-occupancy hotel. He also agreed to drop the prices of 8 of the 37 condos planned for the middle and north buildings to about $140,000, making them affordable for lower-middle-class buyers. And he won support from the anti-low-income-housing crowd by sticking to the plan to build some upscale condos.

There wasn't much Freed could do for the preservationists. During the planning stages Harder sometimes talked about preserving the Plymouth. But by the end of 2001 his company had decided it had to be demolished. Its ceilings were too low, and its windows were oddly placed—which wouldn't suit the needs of the buyers the company wanted to attract. "There are not really enough windows or windows in the appropriate places to allow you to develop the interiors of these floors for residential purposes that can be attractive in the marketplace today," says Harder. "You can be talking about (ceilings) eight feet to eight and a half feet in some cases when you have some kind of floor covering. This is also a condition you don't generally find in loft buildings in Chicago. They're usually higher. In fact, they're approaching ten feet instead of eight. So it makes these units really inferior in design and ambience to other units in older buildings that are reclaimed for use as condominiums." Saving the façade, he adds, would be "enormously expensive."

The hotel was also in wretched shape, according to an engineering report commissioned by Freed. "We do not believe the building is safe for occupancy," it concluded, noting that the roof had collapsed during a recent fire.

The preservationists protested, but the city seemed ready to OK the deal. Smith supported it too, saying the Plymouth was a small price to pay for sorely needed development. "I don't want the deal to fall through—we've pushed the envelope on the number of affordable units we're getting within the Goldblatt's itself," she said at the time. "The Plymouth Hotel was never important to anybody until this development surfaced. No one ever talked to me (about making it a landmark). It was a nonissue. People never even knew what it was called. It never had a name—I mean, it was always the Goldblatt's building. People weren't even aware of its distinguishing characteristics until some people did some homework. That's not to belittle the importance of this, but I'm just saying people decided to fight for this when there is nothing to fight for at all for decades and decades and decades. I think this is something that has to be put into perspective considering the huge task that we have ahead of us to fulfill the potential of this historic district."

In November 2001 Harder presented the Freed plan to the community at a meeting in Uptown that was attended by more than 100 residents, including David Schneider, who was aghast at what he heard. He was no stranger to the politics of Uptown, having worked the year before as an aide in Shiller's office. But until that meeting he knew very little about the Freed proposal; he'd been trying to finish his degree in engineering at Northwestern. Now he wondered why the city had even bothered with planning sessions if the best anyone could come up with was a demolition project. "It wasn't just that they planned to destroy the Plymouth, though that bothered me," he says. "I mean, how can you say that you want to preserve the architectural legacy of a great neighborhood and then destroy the very buildings that make it great? What really bothered me is what I saw as a lack of democracy. It seemed as though there were so many angry people in the audience who felt their needs had not been met. I know it's hard to reach a consensus in Uptown, but I can't imagine that a lot of people would want this. It seemed as though a lot of people were just going along because they thought it couldn't be stopped. And that's not how democracy's supposed to work."

He also thought the deal would spread gentrification. "There's a pattern going on here that anyone can see," he says. "Uptown's changing. We're losing our diversity. The poor and working classes are steadily being driven out. You can see it in the census numbers. Between 1990 and 2000 Uptown lost 3,000 children. Families moved out. There's a greater portion of households without children. I know they're proposing to rehab the Leland, but you have to look at the total impact of the deal. You're knocking down an old hotel that might be used for low-income housing and replacing it with condos that will only drive up rents and continue the process of gentrification."

Within a few days he and Christie Phillips were meeting. "I thought the plan was destroying the character of the neighborhood," says Phillips. "I was particularly moved by Linda Bubon and Ann Christophersen, co-owners of Women & Children First bookstore. They spoke up at the meeting about what Borders would do to their business, and I had to think about that. Why are we using TIF dollars to subsidize one large chain over a smaller locally owned store?"

Two months later, in February 2002, Phillips and Schneider joined about 100 other Uptown residents at a City Hall hearing of the Community Development Commission, which reviews all TIF projects. After hearing testimony from residents, the commission voted to endorse the plan. "It looked pretty bleak," says Schneider. But toward the end of the meeting planning commissioner Alicia Mazur Berg mentioned in passing that anyone with an alternative plan for the site had 14 days to submit it to the city. "Apparently she's required to say that by the rules governing TIFs," says Schneider.

That night he, Phillips, and other activists decided to put together a plan for the Goldblatt's complex. "We talk about how we want Uptown to remain diverse and how we want to preserve old buildings and how we want to nurture locally owned businesses," says Phillips. "Well, here was our chance to do it."

Over the next few days Phillips called developers, business owners, preservationists, journalists, planning consultants—anyone who could help. Within two weeks she and Schneider had formed the Broadway Terrace Development Coalition, and they'd received letters from several businesses—including Voltaire theater and Campagnola restaurant—saying they would move into the alternate development.

Schneider and Phillips pulled together a plan that had retail stores, an organic food co-op, and affordable housing. The Plymouth would become 45 low-income-housing units. "I read Freed's engineering report," says Schneider. "The building's not beyond saving—I don't think the fire was a major impediment. We have 45 rental units and 24 condos, and the rents are low, maybe one bedroom for $450 a month. I don't think people will stay away because of the low ceilings. How high does a ceiling have to be? Freed said it was too low for luxury housing. But those ceilings are eight and one half feet high. Nine feet is standard—we're talking a six–inch difference here."

As the deadline approached, Schneider and Phillips looked for a general developer to oversee the project. "Basically my life was sleep, study, work on this deal, and eat," says Schneider. "I skipped a lot of class and stayed up late studying and made a lot of calls from pay phones at Northwestern and on the el platforms. I took all the information I needed wherever I went. We had talked to dozens of developers—we were calling people on the phone day and night. But they didn't want to commit. They said, 'Oh, there's another plan? One that's backed by the city? We don't want to go against the city.' Some of the developers would say, 'I can't go against the city, but I want to help you.' So they'd give us advice."

Schneider thought he'd caught a big break in February when a major developer, whom he won't name, promised to sign on to the deal. "He told me, 'You know, I should do one community project,'" says Schneider. "So I went down to his office to get a letter of intent. Now, this was on the day our project was due. And while I'm waiting for that letter he tells me, 'You know, I'm just gonna call up planning to see what they're gonna say.'"

According to Schneider, the developer talked for a while with someone at the planning department. "Then he hung up the phone and said, 'Sorry.' I'm like, 'What?' I had to get our plan, with his letter of intent, to the city within 15 minutes. I said, 'You told me you were going to do this—why did you make this call right now?' He said, 'I just didn't want to upset the city.' I was upset—I mean, show some guts, dude—but I didn't have time to discuss it. I said, 'Bye, I've got to run.' I ran to the planning department and turned in the proposal just as it was."

Needless to say, the Phillips-Schneider proposal took the planning department by surprise. Berg had said the city was open to alternatives, but it never opened the process to competitive bids or issued requests for proposals, as it did with, for instance, the housing deals around Cabrini- Green. So officials had no reason to expect that anyone would take them up on Berg's offer.

In early March planning department officials asked Phillips and Schneider to meet with them. Phillips had been in contact with Randy Alexander, a Madison developer who specializes in rehabbing large, old buildings, and Alexander's development project manager, David Vos, had written back. "The purpose of this letter is to confirm our interest in participating in the redevelopment of the Goldblatt's Building and the Plymouth Hotel," he wrote. "We are excited about the opportunity to participate in a project that incorporates sustainable design and maintains a sense of place for the community."

The letter arrived on the day Phillips and Schneider met with planning department official Brenda McKenzie and two of her aides. "We surprised them with Alexander's letter of intent," says Schneider. "I think they were looking at our lack of a letter of intent from a major developer as an easy way to kill our plan. Here was a major developer with lots of experience signing on to our deal. We were legitimate. I don't think they knew what to say. They asked us a bunch of bizarre questions, like where's the family housing? I thought, that's an interesting question. I mean, we have family housing, but where's Freed's affordable family housing? He doesn't have any. My feeling is that they were looking to hatchet us."

Over the next few weeks, Schneider says, he called McKenzie every day to see what had been decided. "She was never in her office. She never returned my calls," he says. "Once I called and she picked up the phone. I could tell she was surprised it was me. She said, 'I'm still reviewing your plan, but I'm actually on my way out, so I can't talk.' Then she hung up. After that I never got her on the phone again."

On April 5 Schneider and Phillips got their verdict in the form of a letter from Berg. "We have found your submission to be unresponsive," she wrote. "The public notice soliciting alternative proposals for the redevelopment site stated 'those submitting alternative proposals must be financially and otherwise qualified to complete the project.' After full consideration we have found that your submission did not meet that standard." Berg also wrote, "No developer with relevant commercial experience has committed to the proposal," describing Alexander's "level of commitment" to the proposal as "tepid."

Phillips and Schneider felt betrayed. "I feel they just made up reasons to dismiss us," says Schneider. "They called it tepid—but that has no meaning. We called Randy (Alexander) and asked him about their conversation with the city. He said his company got a call from the planning department, and they had said something like 'It's a nice plan, but we already have another developer, thank you.' I guess the reason they call that tepid is because after they told him they had another developer Randy didn't pursue the issue. They say we didn't have our finances. Well, you never have your finances when you submit the letter of intent. It takes months to get financing for this type of deal. You don't get that financing until you get approval from the city. One thing's contingent on the other. The city knows this—they're just playing games."

He sees the city's response as proof of its indifference to the plight of old buildings as well as poor people in Uptown. "They had a historical district proposed for the area, and then they let it go," he says. "I think they heard that Borders might come, so they went gaga. 'No big chains have invested here in forever, so let's tear down the whole goddamn neighborhood just to let them in.' They've got a CVS coming to where the Plymouth was. Think about that. They're demolishing a historic old structure for a CVS! You call that progress for the community? They tell you they want diversity, but they don't really want it. They're hoping Uptown changes. They're banking on the change. There's a lot of money on the line."

Since getting Berg's letter, Schneider and Phillips have been out recruiting more backers, and their coalition of supporters now includes the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, Preservation Chicago, Studs Terkel, who lives nearby, as well as housing activists such as architect Howard Alan. They've also managed to embarrass a few local activists who'd signed on to the Freed deal in exchange for the Leland. Jennifer Ritter, a chief organizer for Organization of the NorthEast, says the alternative plan arrived too late, although she concedes, "We shouldn't limit ourselves in the future." Alderman Shiller, usually a champion of low-income housing, didn't return several phone calls for comment. "I've got to give Helen some slack," says Schneider. "This isn't her ward, and so her hands are tied. Plus she did get the Leland deal. She also has to work with the city on other things for her ward. I guess she has to pick her battles."

The city says it's sticking with the Freed plan. As city officials see it, Freed worked long and hard to get its proposal together and deserves the chance to make it happen. "The problem here is that (Phillips and Schneider) don't have a contract on the property like Freed," says Pete Scales, a spokesman for the planning department. "This is a developer who had an opportunity on a piece of property, who came to us with a plan, and we worked on this for months and months and months to come up with a project that can work, that will be stable, and will actually come to fruition."

In September the Freed deal sailed through the City Council without opposition. In December workers put scaffolding around the Plymouth. Preservationists feared demolition was imminent.

But Phillips and Schneider wouldn't quit. Over the summer they raised enough money to hire a lawyer, Michael Rachlis. On January 21 he went to court to request an injunction blocking the demolition of the Plymouth. "Our argument is that we didn't get due process, and that we met more of the goals and objectives of the TIF plan than Freed does," says Schneider. "We've got to throw ourselves at the mercy of a court. That's the last option we've got, and we're gonna use it."

The judge scheduled a meeting between Rachlis, Freed's lawyers, and the city's lawyers for January 23. For the moment, the Plymouth was spared.


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