JEFFERSON PARK — After seemingly losing out to a developer in a battle to purchase a former firehouse in Jefferson Park, the Copernicus Center has filed a lawsuit against the city of Chicago, alleging the process was unfair and biased.
The suit, filed late Wednesday in Cook County Circuit Court, is seeking an injunction to stop the city from moving ahead with a plan to sell the firehouse to Ambrosia Homes. The suit effectively wants the process of considering proposals to start again.
“This lawsuit was filed for one reason, to make sure that this firehouse is open to a fair, open process,” said Bob Fioretti, speaking at a press conference Thursday outside the firehouse at 4841 N. Lipps Ave.
Fioretti, a former alderman and mayoral candidate, is on the legal team representing the Copernicus Center, whose leaders allege they were not alerted to the sale until it was too late, a claim others dispute.
“A few things happened: The Copernicus Foundation found out late in the game that this would be a sideline deal, that people were looking at the project without notice to other bidders. Our aim with the lawsuit is to open it up and make sure that a proper [request for proposal] is issued by the city of Chicago so that we have fairness, we have openness and we have transparency,” Fioretti said.
But John Arena, who was alderman of the 45th Ward when plans to sell the firehouse were announced, took issue during a phone interview Thursday with the allegation the Copernicus Center was not aware of the sale.
Arena said Hubert Cioromski, chairman of the board of directors at the Copernicus Center and the owner of Troy Companies, an Edison Park-based real estate company, spoke to him throughout 2017 about the possible sale and was at a public meeting to discuss the issue that same year — which took place at the Copernicus Center.
At that time, Cioromski put in a proposal on behalf of Troy. The proposal, for a steakhouse on the first floor and apartments on the second floor, was rejected, but the fact he works for the Copernicus Center should squash the group’s claim they were not aware the firehouse would be sold, Arena said.
“We had an open invitation to have people present concepts for it. We followed the negotiated sale process and we worked close with the Department of Planning and Development at the time,” Arena said.
“What’s ironic to me is that Hubert Cioromski, who is the chairman of the board of directors at the Copernicus Center, had badgered me to give him the building. I said here is the process, here is what we are going to do. We had a deadline of May 15, 2017, for the parties, and there were about four or five interested parties at the time.
“We had meetings with them, me and my staff in the office, and he had kept asking me to give him the building. I told him this is the process, give me a proposal. I have an email that acknowledges we extended the deadline from May 15, 2017, to July 15 of the same year. And on the 7th of July, they actually sent me a proposal, which was the first time I saw anything on paper from them. But it did not maintain the historical integrity of the building, which was one of the requirements the community asked for.”
Cioromski responded Friday, saying “What Alderman Arena has said to you is completely false. I did give him a proposal with drawings, with everything, that he never even submitted to the City of Chicago.”
Cioromski said his proposal was on behalf of himself, not his real estate company Troy Companies, and said that “Copernicus was trying to get it for the longest time.”
As to Arena’s contention that Copernicus had to have known the building was being sold because of his conversations with Cioromski, who is chairman of the group’s board of directors, Cioromski said, “I completely and whole-heartedly agree with that statement. We were all aware but every time we contacted his office, which was probably more than 100 times, we were told ‘It’s not ready, it’s not ready, no, it’s not for sale yet, we’ll let you know, don’t worry about it.’
“And I contacted Gardiner when he was elected. We found out [that Ambrosia’s proposal was accepted] when we learned about the zoning change. Up until that time, no one told me that I was rejected, that Ambrosia was accepted. Nothing. There was nothing published as he says.”
As for the meeting at the Copernicus Center, Arena said it was attended by community members also, and thus the public, along with potential buyers, were aware of the pending sale.
“We did a public meeting that was well attended, about 130 people inside the Copernicus Center,” Arena said. “And after the conversation with Hubert about how his proposal was not responsive to some of the fundamental requirements, he came to the meeting and was like ‘this hasn’t been a good process.’ I said, you had the opportunity to respond and you didn’t.”
The Copernicus Center ultimately put in its own proposal, but it was rejected.
In a letter to Copernicus Center executive director Kamilia Sumelka, Department of Housing officials wrote that the proposed plan was “incomplete insofar as it did not include a timetable for redevelopment for the property.”
City officials did not comment on Wednesday’s lawsuit.
Tim Pomaville, president of Ambrosia Homes, which is set to purchase the firehouse, said Copernicus’ assertion it was not aware of the sale is bogus and also pointed to Cioromski’s participation at the public meeting.
“That’s insane. They’ve known about this forever and act like they don’t know anything, but hold on, it’s the same guy, he’s your chairman,” he said. “The offer came from him and the alderman said no.”
Pomaville also took issue with Copernicus’ claim his deal was anything less than above board.
“They are insinuating that this is a backroom deal or something, but to me, hiring Bob Fioretti is them looking for a backroom deal because that’s the guy who can get you a backroom deal,” Pomaville said. “We’re a small little company; they’re huge. For them to insinuate that is hilarious. It’s not true.”
If the sale to Ambrosia proceeds, the plan is to have local brewer Lake Effect run a brew pub/restaurant on the first floor and build nine rental loft apartments on the second floor and a third floor that will be built.
John Chitkowski, general counsel for the Copernicus Center, said it’s unfair that while the center has offered the city $300,000 for the property, Ambrosia Homes will be getting it for $1, but added the lawsuit is merely asking for a level playing field.
“The lawsuit is not asking that the Copernicus Foundation be awarded the opportunity to purchase the firehouse,” Chitkowski. “What we’re looking for is a fair and transparent process.”
The Copernicus Center’s plan is similar to Ambrosia’s in that it would have a brewery and restaurant on the first floor run by a “Chicago-based brewery” but would keep the building a two-story building with four apartments on the second floor.
Another group that submitted a proposal that was rejected was Local 58 of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America. Reached by phone Thursday, the union’s financial secretary, Ian Main, said they support the Copernicus Center’s lawsuit and are considering their options, including possibly joining the suit.
He added that if Local 58 were to buy the firehouse, they would put a community arts center on the first floor and union offices on the second floor.
Gardiner, who replaced Arena as alderman in the area, did not return calls seeking comment. He has written a letter of support for the Ambrosia plan.
Arena said all had an equal chance to get the property and said the Copernicus Center’s $300,000 versus $1 argument is not valid.
“My metric was give me housing, give me a local developer, give me a local brewpub, give me energy on the street, that all adds up to more than $300,000 in cold hard cash because I can make that in sales tax revenue in half a year from a business like that,” Arena said. “So, boiling things down to $1 versus $300,000 only looks at a very narrow slice of the spectrum of what you want to do from an economic development standpoint.”
Chicago commercial real estate attorney Bradford Miller of Bradford Miller Law P.C., which has no stake in the fight for the firehouse, seemed to echo Arena’s contention.
Reached by phone Thursday, Miller said, “Typically the City of Chicago will look at it from a public policy standpoint. They do want to see the plans and they want to see what the benefit to the community would be. So, if a party is offering more money but doesn’t necessarily have a great plan, whereas another party may be offering less money but have a great plan, it’s not uncommon for the city to go with the party that has the better plan because they believe that it will benefit the community as a whole.”