Copernicus files suit on sale of Jeff Park firehouse
by BRIAN NADIG
The fight for the former Jefferson Park firehouse continues as the Copernicus Foundation filed a lawsuit seeking that the City of Chicago stop consideration of current purchase applications of the property and issue a Request For Proposal that would give all applicants a "fair opportunity" to compete for the site.
At a Nov. 12 news conference outside the 114-year-old firehouse at 4837-41 N. Lipps Ave., attorney Bob Fioretti said that the foundation is not demanding that the city sell the building to the foundation, which has offered $300,000, but for the foundation to be treated "fairly" and for the city to launch a public bidding process and for the best application to be chosen. The city is planning to sell the property to Ambrosia Homes for $1. Carpenters Local 58 also made a $1 offer.
"Why in this day and age anyone would take a $1 bid for this building is beyond me," Fioretti said.
The lawsuit states that the foundation was denied access to inspect the firehouse, hindering its ability to submit in its bid a construction timetable and details on its budget and plan for the remediation of the asbestos and lead paint inside the building.
The city Department of Housing has said that the foundation’s bid was disqualified in part because these items were not included. The foundation plans to pay for the remediation in addition to the $300,000 price tag, Fioretti said.
The foundation’s plan calls for a brewpub on the ground floor and four apartments on the second floor and for restoring the decorative elements that once adorned the building’s roofline. Foundation officials have said that they would support efforts to designate the firehouse as a landmark to help ensure that it is never demolished and that they have the necessary experience needed to preserve the building.
"I invite anyone to come look at what we have done (at the Copernicus Center)," foundation chairman Hubert Cioromski said of the restoration of the former Gateway movie theater and the transformation of am adjacent industrial building into an office and multi-purpose entertainment complex.
However, the city housing department maintains that the best offer that it has seen for the firehouse is a $1 bid from Ambrosia, which plans to lease the ground floor to Lake Effect Brewing and add a third floor to the two-story structure. Nine apartments would be housed in the upper floors.
Preservation Chicago and the Northwest Chicago Historical Society have endorsed Ambrosia’s plan. At a 2018 community meeting hosted by then-alderman John Arena, Ambrosia’s plan was well received in large part due to the inclusion of Lake Effect in the project.
The firehouse has been appraised at $208,000, but the city Department of Planning has said that the $1 sale makes sense due to the high cost of remediation.
In 2017 Arena wrote a letter to the city in support of the city entering into a negotiated sale with Ambrosia. Arena held this own private request for proposals and chose Ambrosia’s plan over others, including a proposal from Troy Realty, which is owned by Cioromski.
Last year the city removed an underground tank on the property, and earlier this year the Community Development Commission and the Chicago Plan Commission approved the $1 sale to Ambrosia, and the City Council approved a zoning change for Ambrosia’s project. However, the council has not approved the actual sale.
Alderman James Gardiner (45th) has issued a letter of support for Ambrosia’s project, but in a recent e-mail to city housing commissioner Marissa Novara he asked that the foundation and the Carpenters Local 58, "have the opportunity to present their proposals to the parties that are responsible for making the final decision regarding the sale of the property."
Both the foundation and the union submitted bids as part of the city’s negotiated sale process, which required the city to run a public notice in a newspaper requesting alternative bids before it can finalize its deal with Ambrosia. The ad ran last summer.
The negotiated process differs from a city-sponsored request for proposals in which the city holds a public bidding process and then enters negotiations with the selected bidder. The city has been in negotiations with Ambrosia for several years and has granted the developer access to the firehouse.
Despite their nonprofit status, both the union and foundation maintain that the firehouse would be put back on the tax rolls under their proposals, contrary to the testimony given by housing department project manager James Wheaton at a Sept. 17 plan commission hearing.
"We are putting it back on the tax rolls (as well)," Fioretti said.
The department also has said that the foundation’s bid did not include "any evidence of financial qualifications other than stating that the project would be ‘self-financed.’"
Foundation officials said that they do not plan on borrowing money for the project, which they estimated to cost about $1.2 million.
The foundation’s 2018 Illinois Charitable Organizational Annual Report shows that its assets total about $4.3 million, and, according to the foundation, a copy of the report along with a 990 tax filing was submitted as part of the foundation’s bid. The filing shows that the foundation’s savings and cash total about $1.3 million.
On social media, opponents to the foundation’s bid have cited a recent online fund-raising drive to pay for a roof replacement at the Copernicus Center as evidence that the foundation lacks the funds to pull off the firehouse renovation. Cioromski said that as a nonprofit the foundation holds a variety or fund-raisers and relies on a mix of revenue streams and that the foundation has lined up the funds and grants needed to pay for the roof.
The city Law Department has not responded to a request for comment on the foundation’s lawsuit.
Meanwhile, there are dueling online petition drives. The foundation has set up a Web site at www.fightforthefirehouse.com, and supporters of Ambrosia’s project have a petition available at www.jeffersonparkfirehouse.com.
In addition to the firehouse project, Ambrosia is redeveloping the former K House of Flowers site at 5241 N. Milwaukee Ave. The city recently issued a demolition permit for the project, which calls for the construction of a four-flat.