Former Alderman Ted Mazola forging through recession in University Village, South Loop
01/25/2012 10:00 PM
Ted Mazola has a booming voice, an easy laugh, and a philanthropic vision for the vibrant, charming and diversified University Village neighborhood he has always called home.
In the area where he lives and does business, the affable 62-year-old has been a one-term alderman of the 1st Ward, co-founder of the University Village Association, a driving force behind the rejuvenation of Maxwell Street and a board member of the Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind.
About 32 years ago with partner Gus Mauro, he formed New West Realty Group, LLC at 1440 W. Taylor St. in Chicago, and is now its president. Together they have developed themselves, and with partners, some 5,000 units of housing at various price levels, primarily in the South Loop and Near West Side. But recently New West hit a rough patch due to the economic downturn, and Mazola is working on weathering the storm.
Over the years, Mazola said his projects in once-neglected neighborhoods have often been welcomed. To that end, just west of Western Avenue, the partners recently purchased about 15 empty lots, plus a few row houses, and began to develop a range of affordable, for-sale housing.
“We are digging the foundation and an elderly black gentleman comes out and says, ‘Hey, are you involved with this?’ I’m thinking, ‘Oh no… here we go.’ So, he asks me, are you with New West. I say yes. ‘Are you Mr. Mazola?’ I nod, and he says ‘I just wanted to shake your hand.’ I ask why. He says, ‘We know if you are building here, it is okay to stay.’ That doesn’t happen often, but this is what we want,” Mazola said.
Likewise, at the intersection of Kedzie and Harrison, they wanted to do that kind of project again. They built about 80 units, sold about 44 units, but then the recession hit. In December 2011, with the South Loop being the epicenter of the condo crush, Mazola was hit hard when his company’s 176-condominium tower at 1555 S. Wabash Avenue filed for a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition. In addition, another Mazola project, Eastgate Village, went south. Crain’s Chicago Business also reported that the residential development near McCormick Place and Interstate 55 failed, as well. MB Financial Bank sold the 26 remaining units on Aug. 19, 2011.
“In these recessionary times, I always say it’s not just raining on Ted Mazola. It is raining on everyone,” he said with a good-natured laugh. “When the recession hit, we probably had 15 loans out there. Now we have two, and hopefully very soon they will be worked out. And I am very proud of that. In each instance, we were able to sit across the table from people and come to what makes sense for everybody.”
Formerly a rough and tumble neighborhood, the first big transition came to Little Italy when the University of Illinois at Chicago moved in, followed by a rich tapestry of new neighbors.
After high school graduation, Mazola studied at UIC for three years, eventually transferring to the Illinois Institute of Technology where he received a degree in structural engineering in 1973 while serving as a trained medic in the Army Reserves. He was stationed on a hospital base in Skokie between 1970 and 1976.
Mazola’s first job was with the Metropolitan Sanitary District in Chicago. Mauro worked for the City of Chicago. Their company got its start when Mazola met Mauro and together they began redeveloping and leasing two- and three-flats and small apartment buildings in their neighborhood.
“In those days it was a big challenge,” said Mauro in a phone interview. “Vendors would not lend, insurance companies would not insure, and the neighborhood was extremely opposed to any new construction. People were concerned about change.”
Because of that, he said, they did different things, such as buying, rehabbing and selling properties, as well as property management, and later brokerage. Nowadays the neighborhood is substantially developed, and its residents are familiar with their projects and accept them.
“Now we only have to get the banks to lend again to keep the ball moving forward,” Mauro said.
In the summer of 1981, Mazola and neighborhood resident Oscar D’Angelo, the so-called “Mayor of Little Italy,” collaborated with local merchants and nearby institutions and co-founded the University Village Association. It’s a nonprofit group focused on broadly improving local stability by assisting in the economic residential development in the neighborhood. Mazola was its first president.
Almost a decade later, when Fred Roti, the alderman of the 1st Ward, was indicted in the federal government’s “Operation Gambat” investigation for racketeering and extortion in 1990, Mazola ran for the job and took 57 percent of the vote, in a competitive field of five candidates.
“Being an Italian from the 1st Ward following Roti, the first day I was in office a guy came to me talking about a nightclub on Lake Street. I say, ‘are you talking about a strip club?’ It was my first day in office. I said, ‘get out of here,’” he recalls.
Leaning forward, he enjoys regaling the tale about how the revitalization of Maxwell Street started: One day Mayor Richard M. Daley was in his limo and driving through the Maxwell Street area, Mazola said. At a stop sign, a peddler approached the Mayor, in an effort to sell him a suspect copy of an X-rated film. The project snowballed from there.
“That kind of thing, and the University of Illinois buying up land with the hope of creating student housing, started it,” Mazola said. “My point back then, as it is today, is that you can’t stop change, so if it is going to come, why not control it?”
And, in a way, in the Chicago neighborhood he loves, he has.
There, in the community, he is living a provincial life. With his wife Claudia, he lives in a house across from a park on Lexington that is three blocks from his office, and across the street from his childhood home. Now his sister lives there, and in 2012, the house will have been in the Mazola family for 100 years.
He jokes that whenever he sees a pile of bricks, he says, “let’s do it,” and when people ask him where in the neighborhood to dine, he says, “what dish would you like to eat tonight?”
For him, it’s the pork chops and peppers at Salatino’s, and the flat noodles or fish at Tuscany. At Rosebud, he orders the sausage and peppers, and, of course, it’s pizza at Pompeii Bakery. The list of good eats in his neighborhood, he says, goes on and on.
“We have done a lot of rehab in our own University Village and we have also built some new projects here.
What I have learned is that you just can’t make everyone happy,” he said. “I liken neighborhoods to raising kids. They need to be watched over. They need to be guided. But they are not going to be a mirrored image of you.”