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Pilsen, Little Village, West Loop

City Changes Story On Hilco Building Permit In Little Village, Saying It Was A Mistake

After it was revealed the city issued the building permit despite a stop work order, the city first said their hands were tied. Then they changed their story.

The old Crawford Coal Plant in Little Village on Sunday, one day after the century-old smokestack was demolished. 
Mauricio Peña/ Block Club Chicago
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LITTLE VILLAGE — After it was revealed the city quietly issued a building permit despite a stop work order at the Crawford coal plant site, the city first explained it away by saying their hands were tied. Blocking the permit would be illegal, they said. 

Hours later, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office walked back their comments, saying nearly the opposite. They would push to rescind the building permit after all, just two days after issuing it.

On Tuesday, the city issued a $40 million building permit to Hilco Redevelopment Partners, the developer who oversaw the botched demolition that covered Little Village in dust last month — a demolition that happened in the middle of a respiratory pandemic and with little to no notice to neighbors.

In an initial statement to Block Club, Lightfoot’s spokesperson Anel Ruiz said the Department of Buildings could not “legally withhold the approval of permits.” The site is part of a Planned Development approved in September 2018, she said, and building permits are “months and sometimes years in the making.” 

“While any work outside of that for emergencies and to protect the immediate health and wellness of the local residents remains on hold at the site, [the Department of Buildings] cannot legally withhold the approval of permits that have already been started,” Ruiz said. “While the permit has been approved, onsite work remains on hold…” 

Hours later, the city changed their story. The Department of Buildings “inappropriately approved a new construction permit” and Lightfoot would push for it to be rescinded, Ruiz told Block Club at 10 p.m. 

On-site work “remains on hold, and the City remains committed to keeping community members informed as the process moves forward – no further work will take place without transparency and communication to the Little Village community,” Ruiz said. 

Asked about the contradictory statements, Ruiz said the first statement was a draft sent by mistake. 

City officials have notified developer Hilco Redevelopment Partners the building permit will be rescinded, Ruiz said, But the status of whether Buildings Commissioner Judith Frydland signed off on the rescindment remains unclear.

Hilco officials could not be immediately reached for comment Thursday morning.

The building permit snafu is yet another example of why Little Village neighbors don’t trust the city, said Kim Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. The group met with the Department of Buildings recently, but a building permit was not mentioned, she said. 

“People are pissed” about the city’s repeated lack of transparency around the project, Wasserman said. This is nothing new, but more people are paying attention now and calling out the city’s actions, she said. 

By failing to be transparent, the city has “facilitated” Hilco’s “bad behavior,” she said. 

The building permit was issued one week after the city quietly gave a contractor permission to demolish a turbine at the plant — again with no notice to neighbors. Faced with protesters at her doorstep, Lightfoot later halted the demolition work again.

The same day the building permit was issued, Commissioner Frydland spoke with community groups regarding the compromised turbine building and the need to demolish it before it collapses.

Little Village leaders on the call chastised city officials for holding a private discussion instead of hosting a meeting open to all neighbors. They also criticized the city for failing to invite the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, a group that helped fight to close the coal plant.

Members on the call called for more transparency around the project.

On Wednesday, Little Village residents and members of a neighborhood El Foro Del Pueblo protested outside City Hall echoing for more transparency,  for the city to rescind the $19.7 million tax break given to Hilco, and for the developer to abandon the project.

Esmeralda Hernandez, who lives a few blocks from the Crawford site, said she couldn’t trust the mayor and city officials based on how they have handled the project to date.

“I’m sick and tired of the lies,” Hernandez said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/ Block Club Chicago
Little Village residents protest the city’s decision to restart Hilco demolition outside City Hall in Chicago on Wednesday.

Alderman: Rescind The $19.7 Million Tax Break

For months, the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization and Mi Villita have called for the tax break to be rescinded after the death of a worker on the site. Those calls have expanded with more  community groups and neighbors making the same request following the April 11th implosion.

Now, Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22nd), who has faced criticisms for failing to notify residents about the implosion, introduced a resolution aimed “clawing back” Cook County and Real Estate Tax incentives if a grantee “betrayed the public trust.”

As part of the proposed ordinance, Rodriguez wants criteria created to allow for tax break to revoke tax incentives.

Ahead of the April 11 implosion, the company was hit with two citations for dust leaving the site. Hilco was also cited $68,000 following the April 11 implosion and an additional $2,500 earlier this month when “silty water” was observed leaving the site and going into the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. 

“My resolution will start a process by which we can examine the record of, not just Hilco, but any company that wants the people of this city and this county to give them lucrative tax breaks,” Rodriguez said in a statement. “The city should not do this lightly, but there should be a process that gives us the option, when the company turns out to be a bad actor. It is certainly a consensus in Little Village that this description fits Hilco.”

Community Meeting

Meanwhile, Lightfoot’s office will make its case to neighbors to allow the developer to restart demolition at a virtual community meeting Saturday. The city wants to allow Hilco to tear down a turbine at the old coal plant, contending it is structurally compromised and an “imminent danger” to public safety.

The Chicago Departments of Buildings and Public Health will host a virtual town hall planned from 10-11:30 a.m. Saturday. The town hall will be live streamed on the departments Facebook pages and will have Spanish translation

Department of Building Commissioner Frydland and Department of Public Health Allision Arwady will provide details on the site, discuss next steps, recommendations and answer residents’ questions.

RELATED COVERAGE:

Little Village Neighbors Blindsided Again By Demolition At Hilco Site — A Month After Dust Cloud Fiasco

Contractor In Little Village Smokestack Fiasco Was Cited In March For Blowing Dust — But City OK’d Demolition Anyway

Planned Explosion Covered Little Village In Dust During Respiratory Pandemic — Why Did The City Let It Happen?

Read all of Block Club’s Crawford coverage here.

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