Church planning to buy Cooney Funeral Home
by KEVIN GROSS
Members of Unity Chicago church discussed plans to relocate to the Cooney Funeral Home building, 3918 W. Irving Park Road, at a community hearing held by Alderman Jim Gardiner (45th) on Aug. 19 at the Independence Park fieldhouse, 3998 N. Hamlin Ave.
Unity Chicago plans to use the existing 17,500 square-foot funeral home building without additions to the exterior. The church will allow certain indoor areas to be used by the public as community space for gatherings and meetings.
"We want to be a good neighbor … and by no means are we trying to diminish the community," Unity’s senior minister James Parker said.
The property is zoned B3-1 and would requires a special use to operate which Gardiner said he supports.
"Any business that’s going to draw outreach to the community, help people, hold community functions, you’d be hard pressed to otherwise find," Gardiner said.
Although the church is still under negotiations to purchase the funeral home with the price yet to be finalized, Parker said that Unity church’s 20,000 square-foot building at 1925 W. Thome Ave. in West Ridge sold for about $7.5 million, and that they are pursing a cash purchase of the Cooney site without the use of investors. The 3.5-acre Thome Avenue property, purchased by Unity in 1989, originally housed the Chicago Town and Tennis Club upon its opening in 1925.
Parker described the church, which currently has about 140 parishioners in Chicago, as a non-denominational "practical" and "New Thought" Christian church with an emphasis on "living spiritual principles" through community outreach activities, He also said that Unity’s strategic plan in the Old Irving Park neighborhood could include providing micro-loans or other initiatives to help area businesses.
John Scothorn, president of church’s board of trustees, said that outreach activities have included food dispensaries for the homeless, community gardening, resources for LGBTQ residents or pet ministry rescue programs at Unity’s Thome Avenue location and other locations throughout the country. Scothorn said that Unity tries to match outreach services with specific neighborhood needs rather than "dictating" what they will provide to the community.
"We’ve been very up front with the alderman seeking guidance … on how we can help the community," Scothorn said.
Scothorn said that Unity entered an agreement about 18 months ago to sell its Thome Avenue location to Misericordia Home, which will likely demolish the historic Tennis Club building and replace it with about 100 housing units to help alleviate Misericordia’s rooming backlog.
The sale closed on April 3, and Unity has until October to vacate the site and can operate on an interim basis at Northeastern Illinois University until it moves in to the Cooney site following interior renovations and repairs to the roof.
Parker said that Unity church examined about 18 possible sites in the neighborhood and that members liked the Cooney site because of the building’s 1-story ADA-friendly layout, ample parking space and proximity to numerous bus lines and the Kennedy Expressway.
"This place has tremendous visibility on Irving Park Road … and great access for our parishioners to get here," Scothorn said.
Michael Cooney of Cooney Funeral Homes, which has been open for more than 80 years said that the business will close its Irving Park Road location due in part to retirement of some family members, but will continue to maintain its second location at 625 N. Busse Hwy., Park Ridge.
"I want to make it clear, we’re consolidating, concentrating our practice – we’re not closing," Cooney said.
Some of the approximately 15 residents in attendance – many of whom affiliated with various neighborhood groups – complained about possible over-saturation of churches in the neighborhood, and questioned whether a business might better suit the location.
"I have nothing against churches … but this makes four churches within a two block radius," said Davor Engel, vice president of the West Walker Civic Association. "We’re starved for things to walk to, like a Tony’s (grocery store.)"
West Walker Civic Association president Mike Webber questioned whether a church constituted the best use of the property and also told Gardiner that "we’ve had, frankly, a limited time to digest" the proposal due to the short public notice of the meeting.
"With special uses I can say ‘no,’ but I need to be able to recommend a better use for the land," Gardiner said. "Especially with the new (mayoral) administration, the days of an alderman coming in and simply saying ‘no’ to something are over."
"This isn’t something I’m trying to sneak under people’s noses," he said. "I’m not trying to do anything not in the best interests of the community."