The Asinine Abandominium of Avondale

Grab a cup of coffee and let me share with you the strange but true David-and-Goliath tale of the abandominium, an amazing story you may tell your grandchildren someday, in which regular folks from a community stood up to the moneyed interests, a.k.a.“The Man”, and won.

Unfortunately, I cannot claim to be the witty fellow who invented the term “abandominium”, and I don’t know who did, or I’d happily give credit where credit is due. However, so well-known is this tale in the Chicago neighborhoods of Logan Square and Avondale, that “abandominium” has now entered our shared lexicon, much like “the Bean” or “the Picasso”.

A few helpful facts to help you navigate through the murky seas of this adventure:

  • The abandominium is located in the 35th Ward. Technically (using the city’s neighborhood boundaries) this falls in Avondale, but at times people refer to this as Logan Square as more people are familiar with Logan Square, and the buildings are less than a block north of Diversey Avenue, the city’s demarcation line between the two neighborhoods.

  • The current alderman of the 35th Ward is Rey Colón. When construction of the buildings began, the alderwoman was Vilma Colom.

  • The developer’s name for the abandominium was the “Kimball-Dawson Project”, referring to the two cross streets the buildings were built upon. The term “abandominium” refers to the fact that after the work on the buildings was stopped, squatters moved into them.

A very brief look at the history of the area is also helpful, and specifically, the housing stock is an important factor in this story.

As lots in Chicago are extremely expensive, smaller frame houses are often torn down so that larger single-family homes and/or multi-unit buildings can be built in their place. These more expensive buildings bring a larger profit to the developers, and they have refined the process of acquiring building permits and zoning changes and constructing relatively carbon-copy buildings to an art form.

Avondale was settled by working-class laborers that largely couldn’t afford to build brick buildings, so many buildings are frame. There’s a bit of irony there, as part of the area along Belmont Avenue was known as Bricktown due to the booming demand for bricks following the Chicago Fire. (A brief history of the development of the area can be found at the new Encyclopedia of Chicago’s Avondale entry).

Logan Square, the neighborhood directly south of Avondale, has extremely impressive architecture, with large swaths even granted Historical Landmark designation, including the six-corner intersection of Kimball, Diversey, and Milwaukee Avenues (a scant half-block from the buildings in question, at Kimball and Dawson). In much of Logan Square, even on side streets, the classic Chicago greystone and other stately brick buildings are the norm.

An interesting side note is that one of the first African-American communities in Chicago was located in Avondale right at the location of the abandominium.

The Chicago Tribune’s April 6, 2003 community profile, “Avondale: Stability Amidst Change”, included this reference to the housing stock:

Avondale doesn’t have the glitz or distinctive architecture of a Wicker Park, Bucktown or Logan Square. This Northwest Side neighborhood of about 43,000 residents is made up largely of simple two- and three-flats and frame houses built over the last 50 to 100 years. You’ll also find some scattered in-fill housing and a few newer condominium and townhouse developments mixed in.

The article also mentions the Kimball-Dawson Project:

One project under construction on Kimball Avenue near Milwaukee Avenue will add about 30 condos to the Avondale housing stock.

New construction is certainly often a good thing. However, you can also have too much of a good thing. And in Chicago, new construction is often greeted with skepticism.

I became aware of this project when I moved to Avondale in September 2002. The development bug had certainly hit Logan Square well before then, although Avondale was still relatively unknown. But Avondale’s proximity to Logan Square and good transportation options made the area ripe for new-building development, due to the somewhat outdated and inferior housing stock, which could be purchased and demolished quickly.

Avondale and Logan Square were tops on the list when my wife and I were ready to look for a home of our own. We had been priced out of the housing market where we lived in “West” Lakeview, even though both of us held solid middle-class jobs. But besides the bang-for-the-buck factor, we also wanted to escape the constant chaos of the wrecking ball and the frantic, rushed construction. Older, often Victorian-style, frame houses were prevalent and were coming down like dominoes, with new buildings going up around the clock, often with loud construction occurring illegally (too early and/or too late, taller than allowed, improper setbacks, etc.).

We were also looking to escape the negative effects of the extra density, which had never been addressed in a holistic fashion. It was just taken for granted that new investment and development was good. Many native/longtime residents of Lakeview felt the neighborhood was “a victim of its own success” as far as urban renewal went. The CTA Brown Line and Red Line trains were often too full to board at the Belmont and Diversey stops, traffic was gridlocked all weekend, etc. Although the neighborhood was adding thousands of residents, infrastructure improvements were slow to follow and were – and are – reactive instead of proactive. By the time the extra capacity improvements on the Brown Line and Red Line platforms are concluded, they will likely already be insufficient.

So like many of my old neighbors, we headed west. I was particularly optimistic about Logan Square, a neighborhood where I had lived in briefly as a kid, which still retained its character and also was much more affordable than Lakeview. An extra bonus was the large population of politically active and savvy residents, many of whom had been fighting the good fight since the ‘60s.

As a new homeowner, I quickly found myself enmeshed in numerous contentious issues regarding development in the area. The Kimball-Dawson Project, due to its out-of-scale size, blatantly low-quality building materials and proximity to my home, quickly became a tangible symbol to me of all that was wrong with the “revival” of inner-city Chicago. Thanks to due diligence by many of my neighbors, the progress of actually constructing the buildings had been halted by the time I arrived on the scene and they looked like hideous concrete gargoyles, leering at you as you walked past.

The history of the development and building process illustrates how tough it is for individual citizens to stop even blatantly illegal construction.

Originally the parcel of land in question was a city-owned parking lot, presumably to help out the numerous businesses on Milwaukee Avenue. Milwaukee Avenue predates the city’s formal incorporation. It was originally a trail used by American Indians (and later, settlers) as a trade route, and in fact does go all the way to Milwaukee.

But the city apparently felt that the property would be better if it were developed, and thus on the tax rolls. Parking lots generate some revenue via parking meters, but residential housing generates vastly more via property taxes and the economic (and taxable) activity of the residents. Whether the parking lot was sold at sweetheart-deal pricing is a question that has never been answered.

The story told by area residents is that former alderwoman Vilma Colom was extremely pro-development, to the extent that she was notorious for informally giving developers the green light to build even before the city had given formal, legal permission. A quick look at the Kimball-Dawson Project supported this, as apparently the buildings had been constructed without the developer even so much as properly submitting formal building blueprints and plans to the city.

In 2001, Vilma Colom was still alderwoman. However, lifelong neighborhood resident and activist Rey Colón had made a very respectable showing against her in the prior aldermanic election, and was running again in 2003. Many people didn’t give him a snowball’s chance in hell, but he proved the naysayers wrong and crushed Colom, the Daley Machine incumbent, 58% to 42%.

The ramifications were immense and immediate, as it was obvious the new alderman was not a supporter of the Kimball-Dawson Project. Already more than a year underway (construction had begun in 2002), the project suddenly went from an inevitable eyesore to a brick-and-mortar crime being committed in full public view (well, a cinder-block-and-mortar crime, anyway). It was well known that the developer hadn’t covered his bases legally with this project; he was counting on Vilma Colom to shuffle the project through the myriad number of city committees that approve large residential developments (the blessing of the alderman is the golden goose for developers).

Without this Patron Saint of Development willfully ignoring the building violations and steering the project through the various city agencies that approve projects of this magnitude, members of the community saw an Achilles’ heel in the previously impossible-to-crack armor of the politically connected and wealthy developers.

The developer moved quickly to cover his ass legally, but the community was mobilizing as well.

It turned out that not only were the buildings under construction without ANY building permits, but they were also in violation of numerous zoning codes. Most of the problems stemmed from the greedy decision to squeeze 41 units into a lot that was already densely packed with 32.

And even the plan for 32 units at the site was contentious. Before I arrived in the neighborhood, there was an infamous community meeting at which the developer made his proposal. As neighborhood resident Jane Heron explained on the Yahoo Logan Square listserve, “At a very intense community meeting, people were vocal both for and against. Finally, agreements were made between the parties that the buildings on Dawson would be set back 15 feet and the building on Kimball would contain no store or office space. The people present voted narrowly to support the proposal. The developer was then able to go to the City Council and obtain R-5 zoning, allowing multi-family buildings.”

However, residents I spoke to who were present said that many people in attendance appeared to be friends of the developer and not actual residents of the area. No attempt was made to ensure that only neighborhood residents could vote, so when the project was confirmed by five votes, people were furious.

The new multi-unit residential zoning did not actually limit the development to 32 units; that was just the number presented to the community by the developer on the now-familiar pretty drawings developers always show that illustrate lots of trees and sun and happy white people strolling about. As is often the case, the plans that the developer presented to the community (or some of the community, as the case may be) flew out the window after the property was sold. Curiously enough, shortly after the zoning change was approved! So adding insult to injury, it soon became apparent that the new developer was building more units than the community originally voted to approve, and as I found later, to accomplish this the buildings were in violation of numerous zoning codes.

One glaring violation was safety related. The buildings did not have room for a mid-point, which is designed to prevent fires from spreading quickly. Other violations were simply examples of an obnoxious devotion to the profit margin; the buildings were built with no setbacks in the front and the back and no open or green space. Unofficially, I was told by people in the construction industry that the foundations weren’t deep enough, but as no building plans had been submitted and the construction was halted, there was no way to know exactly how bad the developer was cutting corners and what else might be wrong.

It took a while for people to catch on, but by 2003 community meetings were hopping with activity. In a new twist, instead of these meetings being stacked with the developer’s friends, the meetings were overflowing with residents from all over the neighborhood who were feeling empowered by the election of Rey Colón (Colón had pledged to involve the community on hot-button issues like development). Colón had created a community-wide Zoning Committee, and it was this committee that spearheaded the fight.

In February 2003, a stop-work order was placed by the city, so construction was halted. In the meantime the developer initiated numerous zoning variances from the city to address the numerous violations glaringly obvious in the construction-to-date (it’s difficult to hide having built a building too close to the sidewalk).

This came as a shock to many of us residents, but apparently separate city departments handle zoning variances and building permits. This meant that the developer, who was now in trouble for building without a standard permit as well as for building in violation of the zoning codes, could legally get off the hook for the latter.

So in preparation for the July hearing, the letter-writing campaign began, directed to the Zoning Board of Appeals. On the day of the hearing, July 18, 2003, many residents showed up in force to the hearing to protest any zoning variances. The developer withdrew his request, and it seemed like we had won, and then we found out through the grapevine that the developer was requesting the variances again, in a meeting in October.

I mean, what the hell! As I wrote in my slightly more agitated second letter to the Chairman of the Zoning Board of Appeals:

We understand that the developer of the Kimball-Dawson condominiums has again requested zoning variances for the project, and that this matter will be heard soon.

We are dismayed that this is being re-considered after being rejected only a few months ago. We would think that a developer acting in bad faith would not be allowed to waste the time of the Zoning Board with repeated requests for the same variances, but we will again state our fervent opposition to the project. As the project has not been changed, our reasons remain the same.

As neighbors in extremely close vicinity to this property, we would again ask not only that these variances be denied, but also that a full investigation be launched into this project, and that the architecturally suspect cement “shell” that was illegally constructed over a year ago be torn down for safety reasons.

We understand that the foundation appears to violate front and rear yard setback requirements per the Chicago Zoning Code. This is a particularly heinous development considering that the CTA’s Blue Line tunnel runs underneath Kimball Avenue where the building is being constructed. Compromising the structural integrity of the street would not seem to be in the best financial or safety-related interests of either the City of Chicago or her citizens.

The whole thing was just unbelievable. If anyone had any doubts about how stacked the deck is in favor of big developers, this ought to lay them all six feet under.

The city had halted construction on the buildings, but the developer was apparently able to pull strings in all manner of ways. Construction workers would show up sporadically, working on the buildings in violation of the stop-work order, and it seemed the developer would simply continue to do an end-run around the community until he received permission, and then formal construction would start again. Then the tide began to turn.

Publicity grew as community members continued to unite in their disgust of the project. Some members of the community even took the step of hiring outside experts, a professional planning firm, to appear at the second Zoning Board meeting. There were also approximately 20 community residents present. A miracle occurred and the developer’s variance and permit requests were all denied.

But the community was still stuck with the partially completed buildings. The city had once again issued a stop-work order on the construction (one wonders why this was necessary, in lieu of the first stop-work order), but the developer apparently thought he could just ride out the storm. During this entire time period the developer never bothered to attend any community meetings, and quite frankly, he might have been smart not to, as many were calling for his head on a platter.

So there was an impasse. Winter 2003 came and went, and by 2004 the exposed structures had deteriorated considerably. Somebody, god bless him or her, coined the term “abandominium”, as the empty building shells had become a temporary home for a half dozen or so squatters, including heroin addicts and prostitutes.

It took many months, but at some point the media caught a whiff of the story and Johnathan Briggs gave it front-page treatment in the Chicago Tribune in a lengthy piece published on August 1, 2004:

‘Renegade project’ leaves ruins in heart of Avondale. The promised site for 41 Northwest Side condos has become home to squatters, drug addicts and prostitutes as the city takes its fight with the developer to court.

Of particular note was this description and quotes from the squatters:

Undeterred by a sagging fence and plywood-boarding intended to keep trespassers out, junkies injected heroin and smoked crack cocaine on what would have been the first floor, Contreras said. Below, in a makeshift basement living room, were two couches, a loveseat and a 25-inch television that drew electricity from a power line in the alley, he said.

“It’s an eyesore, let’s be real,” Contreras, 41, said of the project, adding that neighborhood residents have every right to be angry. He then sighed and said, “It is what it is.”His homeless friend, Christopher Turner, 34, said the transients are not to blame. “It’s not our fault. If they [the builders] had a permit, none of this would have happened.”

This really infuriated neighbors, neighboring businesses, and Alderman Rey Colón. In fact, Colón was quoted in the story saying the buildings needed to come down before he would even meet with the developer to discuss a new project.

That apparently helped spur the city to action. Ten days after the Tribune’s front-page story, Johnathan Briggs documented the arrival of the long-awaited wrecking ball in an August 11 story headlined, “Avondale eyesore torn down: Neighborhood’s ‘abandominium’ bites the dust”. (Note: viewing the Tribune’s archives requires payment.)

We couldn’t believe it. After years of struggling, the buildings were gone in a heartbeat. Fortunately I did capture a few photos of them right before demolition began.

There was even a final symbolic victory. On September 2, 2004, the Chicago Tribune ran one last story, “Avondale condo builder fined for blighted site.”

Thus concludes the tale, at least for now.

In the old days, the citizens of port towns would occasionally hang the executed corpses of pirates from bridges to show that the people there meant business. If it were up to me, we’d follow suit and leave the abandominium site bare, as a warning to future developers who are accustomed to circumventing the usual laws so often used to hammer the little guys in Chicago.

As Rey Colón stated in the August 1 Tribune story, “The common Joe is getting hit with inspections for the littlest things and yet this guy is getting away with this big building. How do you get away with big, major projects like this in a ward and the alderman not be aware of what’s going on?”

Good question, good question indeed.

Photos: Carter O’Brien; Map:

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