For the second time in a week, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is taking dramatic steps that will ultimately reshape the Chicago skyline.
A few days ago he introduced a plan to extend the downtown high-density skyscraper district to the north and west as part of a scheme to make more money available in the rest of the city’s neighborhoods. Now he’s trying to seize control of the city’s largest derelict building in order to return it to productive use.
The move was first reported by the Chicago Sun-Times.
Bill Davies, the Briton who bought the Old Main Post Office for $17 million in 2009, was given notice on Friday that the city is going to try to seize the massive building through its power of eminent domain and solicit redevelopment offers on its own. The building has been abandoned since 1995.
Mayor Emanuel wants to open RFP’s in the spring, and choose a developer by the summer. That ambitious, if vague, timetable assumes that Mr. Davies goes quietly into the night and doesn’t fight the city’s plan in court.
The concept of eminent domain has been in the spotlight lately, in part, because of this year’s presidential election. Republican candidates Donald Trump and Jeb Bush sparred over the issue on national television one week ago, and the issue has also come up in local elections in several states. There are a number of eminent domain showdowns in courts across the nation right now, over gas pipelines, fracking, and other types of development.
In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled in a Connecticut case that it is OK for a city to take private property and transfer it to a developer in order to boost municipal coffers. This enraged Illinois lawmakers enough to update the state’s eminent domain rules a year later.
The Connecticut case is different from what’s happening in Chicago because of a key point: In Connecticut, the private property in question was not derelict or abandoned, which is what incensed so many. In Chicago, Davies would be hard-pressed to describe the Old Post Office as anything but derelict. Speaking to the Sun-Times on Friday, city Development Commissioner David Reifman described it using words like “blighted,” “falling apart,” and “potentially dangerous.”
Davies has introduced several grandiose plans for the property in recent years, but none have gone anywhere. There has been significant pressure on him lately to turn the hulk of a building into something productive soon. 25th Ward Alderman Danny Solis threatened to revoke the property’s recently won ultra-high density zoning if something isn’t done with it. Crain’s Chicago Business published an editorial in September encouraging Mayor Emanuel to “use every tool at his disposal to force Davies’ hand.”
Now that he has, we can only hope that what happens in Chicago isn’t a repeat of Connecticut. The city of New London spent $100 million tax dollars fighting the fight, then turned the land over to a developer who bulldozed the building and did nothing with the land. It then left town. A decade later, what used to be a cute pink cottage perched on a hill is now an empty lot strewn with garbage and weeds.