City moving forward with $1 sale of Jefferson Park firehouse, rejecting $300,000 Copernicus offer and Local 58’s bid
by BRIAN NADIG
The city Department of Housing will likely sell for a buck the former Jefferson Park firehouse, 4837-41 N. Lipps Ave., to Ambrosia Homes after it rejected alternative proposals from the Copernicus Foundation and Carpenters Union Local 58.
Both groups have raised concerns about the fairness of the bidding process.
“We intend to fight this,” foundation board member Zenon Kurdziel said at a Sept. 15 news conference which the foundation held in front of the 114-year-old firehouse structure. “We don’t understand how you can disqualify a $300,000 offer.” The foundation operates the Copernicus Center, 5216 W. Lawrence Ave.
Kurdziel said that the foundation’s $300,000 bid was above the property’s $208,000 appraised value. The city Department of Planning and Development has argued that the planned sale for $1 to Ambrosia makes sense given the cost of the lead-based paint remediation that the building requires.
Kurdziel said that acquiring the firehouse would serve as a natural extension of the Copernicus campus, part of which is located on the same block as the firehouse. Kurdziel, an architect who is the president of Ridgeland Associates, would help oversee the project for the foundation.
The city didn’t conduct a public request for proposals for the property and instead entered directly into a negotiated sale with Ambrosia several years ago at the recommendation of former 45th Ward alderman John Arena. The negotiated sale process requires that the city eventually advertise for “alternative proposals,” which was done last month. It is unusual for the city to receive alternative proposals for properties going through the negotiated sale process.
Kurdziel maintains that the foundation would cover the costs of the building’s remediation. He added that one of the reasons the city rejected its bid was that it did not include a construction timetable, which he said the foundation could have provided if it were allowed access to the building.
Representatives of the foundation and the carpenters union have said that the housing department denied them the ability to inspect the building during the bidding process and that a department official recommended that they not submit bids because a decision already had been made to sell the property to Ambrosia, which had earlier been allowed to have an environmental study of the building conducted.
A housing department spokesman said that the department did not dissuade any potential bidder from submitting a proposal and that there were no known requests from the union and the foundation to access the building, although the spokesman added that an individual did inquire about accessing the building on behalf of a friend. The spokesman also said that the alternative proposals were incomplete and demonstrated “a lack (of) financing and development experience.”
A Copernicus spokesman responded that the foundation made numerous requests through phone calls and e-mails to gain access to the former firehouse. The foundation provided a series of e-mails which show that the city told a project consultant for Copernicus that the building is not safe for the general public to enter and offered to provide interior pictures of the building instead.
According to the foundation, its bid included a 990 tax filing for the Copernicus Center to demonstrate the foundation’s ability to fund the project. The bid also included a “sources and uses” budget that included the projected rents for the commercial and apartment tenants, foundation officials said.
In response to the department’s statement, Local 58 financial secretary Ian Main said that the union has plenty of development experience, including the building of a 40-story structure in Downtown Chicago and a training center in Elk Grove Village. He added that the firehouse redevelopment would be a relatively small project.
“We’re neighborhood people and trying to take over a neighborhood space,” Main said. The union’s bid offered $1 for the property.
Main also provided a copy of an e-mail from the department in which the union was denied access to the firehouse.
The city denied the union in part because in its bid the union said that it might consider applying for a city program to help cover the costs of the required abatement for the project. The denial letter from the city noted that the other bidders were not seeking such assistance, although the city’s website states that negotiated sales are intended “for larger and more complex developments and projects that request city financial assistance.”
“Our rainy day finances are good, and we are not involved in litigation, and our credit is stellar, so we are confident that we will qualify for additional funds if necessary,” the union’s bid stated. The bid added that estimating the abatement cost would be difficult without a walk-through with a certified specialist.
Copernicus’s plan calls for a restaurant/brewpub on the ground floor and four apartments on the second floor, while the union planned to relocate its offices to the second floor of the two-story firehouse and to lease out the ground floor.
Ambrosia plans to lease the ground floor to Lake Effect Brewing, currently at 4727 W. Montrose Ave., and to have nine apartments, some of which would be located on a third-floor addition. The other two proposals call for the firehouse to remain two stories, and under all three proposals the building would go back on to the tax rolls, generating property tax for the city.
The housing department spokesman said that Ambrosia’s plan incorporated input from “the community and historic preservation advocates.” Initially the plan called for the addition of a third and a fourth floor, but Ambrosia agreed to eliminate the fourth floor and to setback the third floor so that it would be less visible to passers-by in an effort to maintain the historic two-story look of the firehouse.
The firehouse has been vacant for about 10 years, and there have been several interested buyers over the years, including the Gift Theater and a cultural museum. About 4 years ago Troy Realty, whose president also is chairman of the Copernicus Foundation, gave Arena a proposal, but Arena chose Ambrosia’s proposal.
The City Council at its Sept. 9 meeting approved a zoning change to accommodate the Ambrosia plan, and the Chicago Plan Commission will hold a hearing on the sale to Ambrosia at its meeting at 10 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 17.
The city has been negotiating with Ambrosia for several years, and in August of 2019 Alderman James Gardiner (45th) wrote a letter in support of Ambrosia’s project to the housing department.