Settlement could lead to big park for Mexican neighborhood

August 12, 2011

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(Photo courtesy of LVEJO)
At events like this 2010 protest, Little Village activists have pushed for the city to get the land.

The city of Chicago could be near the end of a five-year legal battle for control of a former industrial site with potential to help form a 24-acre park. If an eminent-domain settlement holds up, the land could be an asset for a Mexican-American area of the Southwest Side.

Cook County Circuit Court Judge Sanjay T. Tailor this week signed off on the deal, under which the city will pay more than $7.5 million for about 19 acres owned by 2600 Sacramento Corp.

“I don’t get a penny,” company owner Joanne Urso said Friday afternoon. The money will go to the Cook County Treasurer’s Office and remain there as Urso tries to settle with a bank that has filed suit to foreclose on the property, according to her attorney.

Urso’s land could combine with an adjacent five acres the city already controls. The park would total about five blocks, all just west of South Sacramento Avenue and north of West 31st Street. The perimeter would pass residential buildings, industrial properties and the Cook County Jail.

Activists in the Little Village neighborhood hailed the settlement. “We have not seen any park development in over 75 years,” said Kim Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.

Wasserman said the deal could inspire other neighborhoods to push for public amenities and services. “Regardless of language and regardless of immigration status, as long as there is determination in these communities, we can continue to get the things that we need,” she said.

The park concept has the backing of the local alderman. “That’s what we’re pushing for,” said Juan Manzano, an aide to Ald. George Cárdenas, 12th Ward.

The property served industrial manufacturers for more than 70 years, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Their output included asphalt, coal tar and driveway sealer. Celotex Corp. made roofing products on the site from 1967 to 1982, the EPA says.

Allied Chemical and Dye Corp. purchased that operation. A series of mergers and acquisitions turned Allied into New Jersey-based Honeywell International Inc. The corporation dismantled the Celotex facilities between 1991 and 1993, according to the EPA. Urso’s company bought the property later.

After cancer-linked chemicals turned up in nearby homes and yards, the EPA designated the area a Superfund site. A Honeywell cleanup consisted largely of covering the land with gravel. The cleanup finished last year, the agency says in a statement.

Chicago filed the eminent-domain suit in 2006. The case became more complicated in August 2010, when Texas-based United Central Bank filed the foreclosure suit, a nearly $10 million claim, in federal court. The loan involves both the Celotex site and another Urso property.

The city’s payment for Urso's land will consist of $6 million from the Chicago Park District and more than $1.5 million from city general-obligation bonds, according to Jennifer Hoyle, a spokeswoman for Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

But the timeframe for creating the park is not clear. Ownership of Urso’s property will transfer to Chicago upon payment, due September 7, but the city is not specifying a date for turning over the acreage to the Park District. “Possibly later this year,” Hoyle wrote Friday afternoon.

A possible obstacle is a Chicago Fire Department facility on the adjacent five acres.

The biggest challenge could be funding the park construction. Wasserman’s group is calling for playgrounds, a farm, sports fields, an amphitheater and a community center. Building all those amenities could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, the group says.