Council backs off Lincoln Square seizures

The City Council housing committee today approved the purchase of a handful of Lincoln Square properties, despite protests from residents and business owners.

The acquisitions, part of the Western/North TIF, sparked a rally of 300 residents in December. Residents were outraged that the plan allowed room for involuntary acquisition of about 10 businesses.

Under the revised ordinance, only a few parcels south of 4807 N. Western will be subject to eminent domain proceedings, in which the city takes over a property without the owner's permission. Those properties include a large building housing a Walgreen's pharmacy. Others will be purchased by the city only if owners wish to sell.

Alderman Gene Schulter [D-47], who proposed the plan, said he did so to stave off big developers who'd begun circling the 4700 block of North Western about five years ago. In order to avoid what he referred to as the incremental process of a "North and Clybourn," with its big-box stores and awful traffic jams, he hired consultants to formulate a strategic plan.

Schulter said obtaining acquisition authority constituted a vital first step in that effort.

"It simply levels the playing field, so that we can compete with private developers in shaping the neighborhood," said Schulter.

Lee Kniskern, president of the Greater Rockwell Organization, spoke out strongly against the city's use of eminent domain.

"I don't think it's appropriate to be taking private property and turning it into private development," he said.

Kniskern said that eminent domain should be reserved for "blighted" areas and public uses such as schools and highways. To allow any use of eminent domain in the Western/North TIF project would set a dangerous precedent, he warned.

Imre Hidvegi, a co-owner of Chicago Soccer said that he was thankful that the small businesses were taken off the involuntary list, but said he believed that the alderman could have avoided problems by including more transparency and community outreach in the planning process.

"I don't think the people from the community were really ever heard," said Hidvegi. "In May 2006 we were in a planning meeting, where it was stressed that the plans were just ideas. Then, fast forward and 'boom' we were on an acquisition list."

Schulter defended his community outreach efforts, and said the Walgreen's building remains subject to eminent domain because it presents traffic and parking problems.

The ordinance is scheduled for final approval by the City Council on Wednesday.