ALBANY PARK — An activist group is planning to build a community garden in a lot already slated to be the future site of affordable housing in Albany Park, ignoring pleas from the local alderman, developer and housing advocates.
Celadon Holdings was awarded city tax credits earlier this year to build a 60-unit apartment building called Metropolitan Apartments in the empty lot at 3557 W. Lawrence Ave.
The project still needs approval from neighbors and the city before it can break ground. But an anonymous group called For The People Chicago has other plans.
“We want to repurpose this decaying urban eyesore into something productive for the community,” the group said in an April 24 Facebook post. “No one is born with land, therefore we reject the premise that it belongs to any one person.”
The group describe themselves as the Chicago chapter of the Maoist Communist Party. Members of the group blur their faces in online images showing them passing out free food in the neighborhood.
The group only has been active in Albany Park since late January, according to one member, who refused to be identified. They said the group chose that site for a garden because they do their weekly food distribution in front of the empty lot. The group member declined to say whether the garden they were proposing was temporary or permanent.
“The land belongs to the colonized/indigenous working class, and it is up to the working-colonized masses to dictate what occurs in their surroundings,” the group wrote.
That post was directed at Ald. Rossana Rodriguez (33rd) and the Albany Park community. Keeping neighborhoods affordable and preventing gentrification were key components of her campaign when she narrowly ousted former Ald. Deb Mell for the City Council seat last year.
Prior to the post, Rodriguez said she reached out to the group to explain why she’s not in favor of their plan. The group told her the garden would only be there until the building is built, Rodriguez said.
“Even if it’s temporary, it will add a needless layer of complexity to the already complicated tax credit approval and community zoning processes,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez recommended the group partner with already established community gardens within walking distance of the lot. While she was trying to schedule a time to further discuss this, the group posted their statement on Facebook, Rodriguez said.
“Celadon Holdings was one of only 11 developers who got the credits for affordable housing in the entire city. These credits are really hard to come by and Albany Park needs housing,” Rodriguez said.
The developer is working on the final financing needed to close on the property, according to Scott Henry, principal at Celadon. The project could break ground sometime in January 2021 if it’s approved by the city.
But the pandemic has slowed the approval process due to fewer City Council meetings, city departments not being fully staffed and the complicated logistics of trying to host community zoning meetings online to gather input from neighbors.
Celedon is partnering on the project with the Renters Organizing Ourselves to Stay (ROOTS), an initiative created by Communities United, a nonprofit focusing on affordable and quality housing. It’s one of two Albany Park projects ROOTS is working on.
Communities United has been trying to increase affordable housing since before the 2008 housing crisis. When Celadon was finally awarded the tax credits, Communities United considered it a hard-fought win for the neighborhood.
“I’m just as baffled as everyone else,” said Diane Limas, Communities United’s board president. “When we first heard about their garden I thought it was a joke. I just don’t get why they’re so intent on pushing for that there when they can work with so many nearby gardens that have been doing that kind of work for years already.”
Rodriguez said she hopes the group will listen to her pleas but she has no intention of having police get involved in the dispute.
“I was expecting NIMBYs and the other challenges people face when supporting affordable housing,” Rodriguez said. “It’s really bizarre I’m arguing with a leftist organization.”
The activist group previously caused a stir when it attacked the owners of Khepri Cafe in a series of posters calling them gentrifiers.
“You’d think since those flyers were against gentrification and housing displacement they’d jump to support our affordable housing development and be an ally,” Limas said. “I just don’t understand them or their agenda.”
Complicating the dispute is that the site formerly was home to a gas station.
The current owner has removed the old gas storage underground tanks and was granted a no further work order from the state, the developer said. Once Celadon closes on the property they’ll conduct a further review of the site before doing any necessary remediation.
“Until we know for sure what’s in the ground I don’t think any reasonable person should plant or eat food grown there,” Henry said. “There’s a legitimate health and safety issue these activists may not be aware of.”
The For The People member said they were unaware of the site’s history as a gas station until told by Block Club.
“When [we] spoke to the alderperson Tuesday, she said a garden could cause ‘additional complexity’ to the affordable housing project but we didn’t get why it would be an issue,” they said. “We are open to working with the folks in the community and are not opposed to affordable housing.”
When told Rodriguez, Communities United and the developer had all been trying to reach the group, the group member would only say they were open to a meeting.
As for the potential soil contamination, the group said they’d already started constructing raised garden beds with lining to avoid it.
How the groups resolve the issue remains to be seen.
Rodriguez confirmed the group reached out to her Tuesday about an unrelated tenants’ union matter. During that call she also gave them an “earful” about their garden plan.
“Community organizers in Albany Park who have fought for this affordable housing for years are telling For The People they aren’t being helpful but this group that’s new to the neighborhood is ignoring them,” Rodriguez said. “They can say they’re in favor of affordable housing but their actions say otherwise.”
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