LITTLE VILLAGE — After a failed implosion covered Little Village in dust last month, the city wants to allow demolition at the old Crawford Coal site to resume.
In a virtual town hall Saturday, city officials said a turbine building at the site is dangerous and needs to come down. But skeptical residents who live nearby question whether the city and developer will protect their health and safety this time around, as coronavirus continues to hit their neighborhood hard.
The meeting came as Little Village activists say some residents don’t trust the city. City officials have failed to keep residents informed despite promises of transparency after the dust disaster, said Kim Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.
First, on April 11, the city allowed the demolition of the former Crawford Coal smokestack amid a respiratory pandemic and with little notice to neighbors. When it fell, a cloud of dust and debris fell over nearby Little Village homes. A day earlier, activists begged city officials to stop the demolition but it went on anyway.
Then, a little over a week ago, despite a stop-work order at the site, neighbors were blindsided when the city gave a contractor permission to demolish the turbine at the plant. There was no notice to neighbors. Faced with protests, Lightfoot later halted the demolition work again.
Then, just days later, the city quietly issued a $40 million building permit for the site’s redevelopment. Some neighbors were mad again, noting Hilco Redevelopment Partners would eventually need a building permit to continue the redevelopment.
In response, the city first said they couldn’t rescind the building permit. Then officials changed their story, saying nearly the opposite — the Department of Buildings issued the permit by mistake, and Lightfoot was pushing for it to be rescinded.
At the Saturday meeting, Department of Buildings Commissioner Judith Frydland told residents the building was a danger to the public’s safety and needed to come down.
Department of Buildings Inspector Tibaldo Alvarez inspected the site May 4. More than half of the structure has already been demolished, and the remaining roof is unstable, he said. Eight feet of water from heavy storms are sitting in the building’s basement, putting more stress on the building, he said.
If the building were to collapse on its own, it’s uncertain, “what direction the building would collapse,” Alvarez said. “That presents a real danger.”
The demolition would be a “mechanical demolition” with bricks removed a few pieces at a time. “No explosives” or wrecking ball would be used, Frydland said, and the demolition would take one to two days.
Water cannons would be used to prevent dust from leaving the site. Large scissor-like equipment will then be used to remove the remaining steel columns, Frydland said.
A start date for the new demolition work has not been determined but Frydland promised residents would get “ample notice.”
Frydland, Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady and Manuel Perez, a Lightfoot staffer, said there would be building department inspectors, officials from the Chicago Department of Public Health and a third-party environmental consultant at the site overseeing the work. If they see any issues, they will halt the work, city officials told residents.
“The mayor’s top priority, and our priority, is public safety,” Perez said. “That’s really what we are talking about here….That’s what’s driving this conversation…. We certainly don’t want to leave a structure …on the verge of collapse that we can’t predict when they will come down.”
Residents pressed city officials on whether inspectors can be trusted to look out for their safety after the botched implosion.
“There is no trust here,” one resident said. She said neighbors don’t want the same city inspectors on site overseeing the new demolition work as the ones involved in the April 11 demolition.
Wasserman asked if the city had an emergency plan in case something does go wrong at the site.
Arwady said the city was doing their due diligence and is bringing additional expertise on board to oversee the demolition.
Don Finn, business manager for I.B.E.W. 134, the electricians’ union, said he wants the Hilco project to move forward.
Juan Rangel, a Little Village resident, said the mayor’s office had made a “compelling case” to demolish the building.
It’s developer Hilco that still needs to make amends with the community by addressing pending lawsuits and prioritizing jobs at the facility for Little Village residents, Rangel said.
It’s unclear if the Juan Rangel who spoke on the virtual call is Juan Rangel the political consultant who co-chaired former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2011 campaign and used to run UNO charter schools. A Juan Rangel is also listed as a plaintiff in one lawsuit against Hilco.
But other neighbors echoed the growing refrain among activists, calling on Hilco to abandon their plan to redevelop the site.
One resident said allowing continued demolition to continue during the pandemic, which has hit Little Village particularly hard, is akin to the making the largely Latino, working-class neighborhood a “sacrifice zone.”
Another resident wondered how the demolition would impact the remaining seven-story structure at the site. “At what point will demo work stop?” the person asked.
Frydland said the seven-story building has structural issues as well but tearing down the turbine structure is the priority. Residents would be informed of any future work at the site through community meetings, she said.
Mary Lu Seidel, director of community engagement at Preservation Chicago, called on officials to provide structural reports of the turbine building. Instead of tearing it down, Seidel suggested the city have the developer stabilize the remaining structure and construct a new building to be used by the Little Village community.
Ivy Czekanski, who identified herself as a North Side resident, said the April 11 implosion and subsequent demolition would never happen in her neighborhood. “This is blatant racism.”
“Why is Hilco still being trusted after what they did with this community?” Czekanski said.
Other attendees slammed the city for not having proper translation to Spanish and called for another meeting. On the Department of Buildings’ Facebook page, viewers called on more transparency from the city and to answer more questions from neighbors.
One commenter said Hilco and Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22nd) need to stage a community meeting to answer residents’ questions about the botched demolition and Hilco’s plan to build a one million-square-foot warehouse for Target at the 70-acre site, 3501 S. Pulaski Road.
The area faced high levels of air pollution due to the century-old Crawford Coal Plant, which closed in 2012. The new warehouse will bring fleets of diesel trucks into the community, activists say.
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