Uptown Update: Why Mum’s Not the Word on Wilson Yard

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This content originally appeared on my former Chicagosphere online-media blog, hosted on the Chicago Tribune‘s ChicagoNow network.

I get a kick out of Uptown Update, the popular community news blog for the North Side’s Uptown neighborhood. It’s always entertaining. But not always for the right reasons.

For the past couple of years, its claim to fame–along with Buena Park Neighbors and the Uptown Neighborhood Council–has been vituperative opposition to Holsten Corp.‘s $150 million Wilson Yard redevelopment project on the site of a former CTA rail yard on Broadway between Montrose and Sunnyside. Potential development plans for the rail yard (whose story is well summarized on railfan site Chicago-L.org) were vetted with 46th Ward residents beginning in the late 1990s, leading up to the creation of a Wilson Yard Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district by city ordinance in 2001.

In December 2008, a group of project opponents associated with the three websites filed a lawsuit seeking to challenge the 2001 TIF ordinance. At the time, the Chicago Reader’s Ben Joravsky–our fair city’s staunchest opponent to using TIF funds for the benefit of private developers–suggested the reason for the Uptown Update gang’s ongoing ire is the fact that by the time shovels finally hit ground on the Wilson Yard redevelopment project, the neighborhood was already busy redeveloping on its own with upscale, market-rate condo units. The current plan includes only affordable housing, anchored by a new Target retail store.

According to the “official” opposition blog, FixWilsonYard.org, Joravsky’s partly right. The overarching reasons for the hostility of Uptown Update et al., however, seem to be doubt that Target Corp. will actually build the new store and fear that the low-income housing element of the project will turn the Wilson Yard area into a new Cabrini-Green (from the site, “Residents of this failed housing model will be easy prey for the gangs and drug crews that terrorize Uptown today.”)

As this discussion thread on Buena Park Neighbors points out, although the project no longer includes mixed-income housing as originally planned, what will be built is a far cry from Chicago’s miserably failed midcentury public housing. A joint press release from Holsten Corp., Target Corp., and the office of 46th Ward Alderman Helen Shiller posted to the Ward website in November 2008 confirms Target’s participation and describes two modest affordable-housing buildings: an 80-unit complex for families and a 98-unit complex for seniors, both with on-site management and strict tenant-selection criteria. [Full disclosure: Yours Truly wrote the very press release working as a vendor for a local P.R. firm.]

So why the continued ire from the Uptown Update gang? According to the Update, because Holsten Corp. and Alderman Shiller refuse to debate the project details on their merits. On the other hand, project opponents have dramatically disrupted several public meetings called by Shiller and Holsten Corp. President Peter Holsten, so reticence on their part to continue to stand in front of the crosshairs is understandable.

In fact, operating under the assumption that the loudest voice wins seems to be working in the court of public opinion. Mention Wilson Yard to an average Uptown resident–for example, my date over Memorial Day weekend–and you’re likely to hear an earful about alleged bad behavior on the part of Holsten and Shiller. (Imagine my surprise.)

That’s understandable, too–neither developer nor alderman have mounted much of a public defense of themselves. Although Shiller’s staff has posted some background information about the project on the 46th Ward website, the last words were those of the press release–published to the site more than six months ago.

Holsten Corp. has been even less forthcoming with public information, posting a mere three paragraphs about Wilson Yard on its corporate website. Holsten also didn’t help matters much when it legally went after several local blogs including Uptown Update, attempting to subpoena the names of any bloggers who were also plaintiffs in the TIF lawsuit. The move was seen by many as an attack on the First Amendment rights to free speech and free assembly and drew the immediate legal assistance of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Earlier this month, the opposition’s own lawsuit was thrown out, on the grounds that the plaintiffs waited to long to file a complaint against the 2001 Wilson Yard TIF ordinance. According to a May 24th Uptown Update post, the plaintiffs aren’t taking “no” for an answer–but they refuse to divulge their new legal strategy until their next court date, currently set for Friday, June 12th.

Lest all this leave you thinking opposition to the Wilson Yard project is unanimous in Uptown, according to a May 12th story in the Chi-Town Daily News, two major area social-justice groups, the Organization of the NorthEast and Northside Action for Justice, support the use of TIF financing for the creation of affordable housing–in theory, and on the ground at the Wilson Yard site. The Daily News also reiterated Target Corp.’s confirmation that their new store is a foregone conclusion.

Still, if past is prologue, I’d expect the pages of Uptown Update to conitnue to rail against the rail yard redevelopment plan for some time to come. Although the plaintiffs have likey lost their legal battle, their on-message-like-a-laserbeam strategy will probably continue to win over the support of locals–especially if Holsten and Shiller continue to shirk their own right to free expression.

I wish the latter two luck. Words to the wise for anyone else wishing to tangle with the wags at Uptown Update: silence may be golden, but it’s tight lips that sink ships on the blogosphere.

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