Alderman Gardiner criticizes the process but says he will ‘not stand in opposition’ to sale of Jefferson Park firehouse; city expected to net $0 on actual sale unless remediation comes in under budget
by BRIAN NADIG
Alderman James Gardiner (45th) said that he is “deeply concerned” the city is essentially planning to give away for free the former Jefferson Park firehouse, 4841 N. Lipps Ave., just two months after implementing a property tax increase but that he will not “stand in opposition” to the property’s sale.
Gardiner, who voted against the city budget and tax increase, made his remarks at the Jan. 20 meeting of the City Council Committee on Housing and Real Estate, which unanimously approved the sale to local developer Tim Pomaville of Ambrosia Homes, which plans to renovate the 115-year-old, two-story structure and add a third floor.
Plans call for Lake Effect Brewing to open on the ground floor and for nine apartments to occupy the upper two floors. The full council is expected to approve the sale to Ambrosia at the council’s Jan. 27 meeting.
Ambrosia is being required to put $208,000, which is the appraised value of the property, in escrow to cover the cost of the project’s environmental remediation, which includes the removal of lead-based paint and asbestos. The city would keep any unspent funds, but city officials said at the meeting that they expect the actual cost of the remediation to be higher than $208,000 and that Ambrosia would be responsible for any overrun.
Last summer the city rejected a proposal from the Copernicus Foundation offering to pay $300,000 for the property in addition to covering all of the remediation expenses. The foundation operates the Copernicus Center at 5216 W. Lawrence Ave. and has a pending lawsuit against the city claiming that its bid was at a disadvantage because it was denied access to the building so it could formulate a remediation plan and proper timetable for the project.
“We as a city are not making any money on this deal,” committee member Ray Lopez (15th) said. “Truthfully they’re just (acquiring) this for free and paying for the remediation.”
At previous public hearings, officials from the departments of planning and housing said that the property would be sold “for $1” but that language was not used at the Jan. 20 meeting.
“To say $208,000 (is the sale price) … isn’t necessarily being wholly honest on the situation,” Lopez said. He added that his comments were based on the housing department’s testimony that none of the escrow funds are expected to be leftover. Under both Ambrosia and Copernicus’ plans, the city-owned property would be returning to the tax rolls.
Gardiner said that he wants a “fairer and ethical” approach to any future sale of city-owned properties in his ward but that he wants the sale to Ambrosia to move forward so that the remediation of the building can began “sooner rather than later.” The city began negotiating with Ambrosia about 3 years ago at the recommendation of then-alderman John Arena, but the city did not issue a request for alternate proposals until last summer.
James Wheaton, project manager for the housing department, said that the department was surprised to receive two alternate proposals and created a scoring formula to judge the bids from Ambrosia and Copernicus and a third one from Carpenters Local 58, which offered $1 for the property.
Wheaton said that Ambrosia received a near perfect score (73 of 75 points) on its application, compared to 54 for Copernicus and 14 for the union. The city allowed Ambrosia to have an environmental company enter the firehouse to conduct a study, and the fact that Ambrosia paid for the study played a factor in the city’s decision to recommend Ambrosia as the buyer, according to Wheaton.
Foundation officials said that the department has publicly mischaracterized its application, falsely claiming that the foundation’s plan would not generate property tax revenue and that the foundation lacked the financial resources to pull off the project. The application included a tax form showing that the foundation has more than $3.7 million in assets, according to the foundation.
At a hearing last year Alderman Tom Tunney (44th) said that the foundation’s proposal would generate property tax revenue because it would include a for-profit restaurant on the ground floor. The foundation’s proposal also includes four apartments on the second floor.
Housing commissioner Marisa Novara said that the foundation should have submitted its own negotiated sale application to the city years ago instead of waiting for the issuance of a request for alternative proposals (which was issued in direct response to Ambrosia’s application as required under city policy).
According to a timeline presented by the department, Ambrosia submitted an application in 2017. Copernicus officials have said that a proposal was given to Arena but that he did not give it to the planning department for review.
Also, according to the department, Ambrosia would begin construction in March, with the Lake Effect restaurant opening in November and the apartments leased-up by next January.
At the meeting, representatives of Jefferson Park Forward and Preservation Chicago praised Pomaville for working with the community and making adjustments to the plan. Initial plans had called for two additional floors to the firehouse, but one floor was removed at the request of the Northwest Chicago Historical Society and Preservation Chicago.
In addition, representatives of the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association, Polish-American Chamber of Commerce and the Illinois Division of the Polish American Congress asked the committee to table the the matter so the foundation and any other interested entity could be given an opportunity to inspect the inside of the firehouse and submit a thorough application.