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Uptown in the News  

June 8, 2005
Uptown eyesore blossoms into community garden
By (Angela Caputo)

Peering out from the picture windows of her Uptown townhouse onto an abandoned stretch strewn with weeds and trash, Tonya Lorenz has spent countless hours pondering the fate of her block.

Instead of the ditched shopping carts and early morning drinkers that have dotted the barren land for years, she always dreamed of a different kind of community respite.

So, when a community leader approached her last year with a plan to transform the property along the 4600 block of North Winthrop Avenue into a community garden, it didn't take any convincing to get Lorenz to sign on.

After more than a year of planning, a partnership between the city-sponsored NeighborSpace program, the community development group Uptown Community Development Corporation (UPCORP), and Ald. Helen Shiller (46th) is blossoming. Once merely a vision, their efforts to create the public garden is coming closer to fruition.

Clearing the way to enter into purchase negotiations with the property owners, the city's Community Development Commission May 24 approved putting 4628 through 4632 North Winthrop Ave. on a property acquisition list.

The full City Council still must vote on the measure before the city can make an offer to the owners listed as Metro Development II Corporation, according to records from the Cook County Recorder of Deeds.

Joyce Dugan, executive director of UPCORP, 4679 N. Broadway Ave., first made a push to tame the overgrown plots more than a year ago. With the rear of the non-profit's office abutting the vacant property, which includes a weed-strewn alley, Dugan said, "It just seemed to me like a kind of a waste. It's an unused alley filled with trash."

Forging a partnership with NeighborSpace, a non-profit land trust organization that oversees conservation, liability issues and property management, UPCORP is committing to taking on a stewardship role along with some other neighbors and local non-profits.

Before NeighborSpace agrees to adopt the property, a series of environmental tests will be needed to evaluate the health of the land.

If all goes well, Dugan hopes that gardening will begin by spring of 2006.

Developer impact fees, collected through local rehab and new construction projects, are being leveraged to buy the property, going for $502,000, a Development of Planning and Development spokeswoman said.

Tapping into the city revenue is key to sealing the deal, NeighborSpace Executive Director Mary Jo Schnell said. "This is hot property and we wouldn't be able to compete in the market place," she said.

Of the 86 NeighborSpace parcels citywide hosting 50 community-managed projects, the majority of the plots were turned over from the city's property inventory for $1 each, Schnell said.

So the prospect of securing property in a booming lakefront community that is selling at market rate is seen by many as a huge victory for the community. "In these dense areas you're lucky to find a space in a backyard where there is enough land to plant a tree that's not paved over," Schnell said.

Although encouraged to see a wave of development sweeping the area, Lorenz said, watching the recent hyper-development on her block has been bittersweet.

Along the stretch of Winthrop just east of the Wilson L stop, four new multiunit condo buildings joined the block this past year alone. Two of the new buildings paved over former de facto community gardens started by residents who once saw promise in the vacant lots.

Just before construction began, some neighbors raised a banner saying, "Hello condos, good-bye garden," Lorenz said. At the time she thought, "It would be nice to have condos and a garden."

Now she says, "I hope it happens...we have both and it makes a huge difference in the neighborhood."

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