City faces challenge developing vast vacant lots

The Home Front

02/22/2012 10:00 PM


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It’s leap year 2012, a time to take a leap forward to look at the challenge Chicago faces in the future of developing its vast supply of vacant land.

One of the great questions Mayor Rahm Emanuel faces is what to do with the ever-growing real estate wilderness — Chicago’s vacant lots.

The city of Chicago estimates there are currently about 10,000 vacant lots on the South Side — most of them stretching from McCormick Place around 22nd Street to Hyde Park and from Lake Michigan deep into Englewood. Thousands more vacant parcels can be found on the city’s West Side.

However, William Lavicka, a master preservationist who heads Historic Boulevard Services, believes the city’s land bank may contain more than 50,000 lots when both city-owned and privately owned vacant property on the South and West sides are taken into account.

Lavicka says city blocks ravaged by teardowns look like “a mouth with missing teeth.” If these properties could somehow be resurrected from the deep, dark fiscal hole of delinquency and put back on the active real estate tax rolls, then tens of millions of dollars in new revenue could be injected into the city budget.

Urban pioneer Lavicka, a tough, innovative guy who served in the Seabees during the Vietnam War, is still telling war stories about his adventures renovating abandoned properties on the Near West Side for the past 35 years.

In 2010, while renovating the Gut Heil Haus, a turn-of-the-century fortress-like building that formerly was a German Social and Athletic Club at 2431 W. Roosevelt Rd., Lavicka slept in the property at night armed with a baseball bat and a shotgun to guard its beautiful interior appointments.

The renovation of the old West Side German beer hall is just one of dozens of vintage properties Lavicka personally saved from the wrecking ball while serving as an urban commando.

His swashbuckling victories against the urban pirates range from helping save a row of mansions along the 1500 block of West Jackson Boulevard and obtaining landmark designation and listing on the National Register of Historic Places, to the spirited renovation of a dozen churches, including the Church of the Epiphany on Ashland and Adams.

These works of renovation and art are just a few of dozens lovingly outlined in “Urban Structure,” a self-published book authored by Lavicka to remember his life’s work in words and pictures accomplished over the past four decades. The book, completed while Lavicka struggled to recover from illness, is an amazing record of accomplishments by a creative and tenacious man.

Meanwhile, hundreds of properties are being deposited every month into the city’s land bank by foreclosure-minded mortgage companies and banks who are seeking to rid their books of delinquent homes and apartments.

The process typically starts with abandonment, boarding up, and then foreclosure. But the blight and foreclosed properties are far from forgotten by the neighbors and the community.

With no hope for a resale to recoup the investment, the banker’s neglect results in abandonment of the property. The weeds grow, the windows are smashed, and the building becomes an unsafe place for homeless people to squat, a drug house, or the site of a fire.

Eventually, this scenario forces the city to raze the property and reduce the bank’s real estate tax classification from improved property to vacant land, which is taxed at a much lower level. Often the land is just donated to the city for back taxes, or picked up in the tax scavenger sale.

Typically, the abandoned building also becomes a resource for Chicago’s underground economy and is stripped of its valuable appliances, furnaces, light fixtures, copper pipe and electrical wire. Often, the urban pirates even take the hardwood floors, fireplace mantels and doors.

Even if an investor buys the abandoned building, secures it with guard dogs to protect the building’s improvements and begins to renovate the property, it sometimes isn’t a happy ending. It is not uncommon for the dogs to be poisoned and killed by the urban pirates to scavenge the profits within.

Maybe Mayor Emanuel should put Lavicka, a champion of preservation, in charge of policing the city’s junkyard of abandoned buildings.

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By pitt from humboldt park
Posted: 04/12/2012 5:34 PM

How does one determine who the owner of a vacant lot is? I'm trying to find out who owns the vacant lot at California/Iowa.

By Sohenlal Smith from South Loop
Posted: 02/24/2012 5:56 PM

10,000 dog parks.

By Claudeah from United Center
Posted: 02/24/2012 11:51 AM

Thank you Mr. Lavicka for your years of hard work!

By Grandma from Douglas
Posted: 02/23/2012 4:09 PM

Money for community development has been awarded for certain communites like Grand Boulevard and West Woodlawn, by the MacArthur Foundation.