HUMBOLDT PARK — A Humboldt Park museum led by a longtime former alderman has been ordered to stop construction on a cinder-block building after city officials found the project got underway without correct permits.
The National Puerto Rican Museum of Arts & Culture, which occupies a landmarked building at 3015 W. Division St. in Humboldt Park’s namesake park, is building a secondary facility on park land directly next to the museum. Once complete, the building will store the museum’s archives and art collections, Executive Director Billy Ocasio said.
Ocasio served as 26th Ward alderman from 1993 to 2009.
Preservationists and neighbors questioned how the rectangular, cinder-block structure was permitted to go up next to the Queen Anne-style stables, which date back to the 1890s. As it turns out, the project did not receive necessary permits or clear layers of city and state approval to start construction, officials said. A stop-work order was issued Sept. 25, city officials said.
The site was abandoned Tuesday, with a half-built cinder-block structure, building tools and machinery cordoned off by construction fencing and police tape.
“The district is currently evaluating the proper next steps and will continue to work with all relevant agencies to determine the future of the project,” Park District spokesperson Michele Lemons said in an emailed statement.
Ocasio said they hope to resume construction after securing requisite approvals to build on Park District land close to a Chicago landmark. Museum leaders weren’t trying to deceive the city or circumvent regulations in starting construction, he said.
“Some honest mistakes were made, and we’re trying to correct them,” Ocasio said. “We’re working with the city, we’re working with the state and we’re working with the Park District on them.”
Founded in 2000, the National Puerto Rican Museum of Arts & Culture is “the only self-standing museum in the nation devoted to showcasing Puerto Rican arts and cultural exhibitions year-round,” according to its website.
The museum operates out of Humboldt Park’s oldest-surviving structure, the Humboldt Park receptory and stables, a Park District-owned building built in 1895 for horses, and as storage for wagons and landscaping tools.
Designated a Chicago landmark in 2008, the building also housed the office of renowned landscape architect and then-park Supt. Jens Jensen.
Ocasio said they’ve been trying to build a climate-controlled storage and archives building on the site since before the pandemic, and they secured $750,000 in state capital funds in 2020 to bring the project to life.
Thanks to surging building costs during the pandemic, the project now costs $1.2 million. The museum is covering the gap in funding, Ocasio said.
Ocasio said the building will be no more than two stories tall.
“We haven’t grown our collection because we’re waiting to build this thing,” he said. “It’s very important for our future.”
Construction on the museum facility started earlier this year after the team got some approval from the state grant office, Ocasio said. The project came to a halt about a month ago, two weeks before the city issued the stop-work order, when the museum realized they’d missed some steps of approval, Ocasio said.
“We submitted a bunch of documents, we were told we were fine, so we moved forward. However, as they checked things out, we weren’t fine. There was some confusion over who had jurisdiction, the Park District or the city,” Ocasio said.
Lemons said the museum must follow proper procedures outlined in its lease if it intends to build on the property, including written approval from the Park District. The museum also needs “additional approvals,” including city permits, Lemons said.
Lemons didn’t answer further questions about what specific approvals are needed to build on the Humboldt Park site.
No building permits have been issued for the project, city records show.
Museum leaders applied for a building permit in late September but have not paid the required fees nor submitted any designs for officials to review, according to city officials.
“The general contractor listed on the application has received over 130 permits since 2000 and would know that a building permit was required prior to any work,” a city spokesman said.
The museum previously tried to bring shipping containers to the site, but the state’s grant office nixed that idea, urging the team to build something that complements the historical stables building, Ocasio said.
“It’s a blessing that this is all happening because now the state gets to take another look at it,” Ocasio said of the stop-work order. “In a way, it’s a good thing for everyone. We’re doing everything correctly now.”
Local preservationists and neighbors who frequent the park are concerned the facility will detract from the beauty and charm of the landmarked stables building and the park, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The unfinished cinder-block structure “looks like hell,” and it’s difficult to imagine how the museum’s facility will improve the area, as the museum hasn’t publicly shared its plans, said Mary Lu Seidel with Preservation Chicago.
Ocasio said the design is being reviewed by city and state officials.
“It’s important for the museum to have a place to store their art, but they should be able to do it through a process that ensures that their singular purpose doesn’t negate the incredibly hard work the city has put toward preserving Humboldt Park and the Humboldt Park stables,” Seidel said.
“You’re not just talking about some building on the corner that has no history or character; you’re talking about a Chicago landmark and a National Register of Historic Places park that we don’t want to impact.”
Neighbor Bridget Montgomery said the museum appears poised to “slap up” the facility without any regard for the site’s rich history.
“To build a new building on the same site as a historic landmark, especially one that has such important to the area — it’s ignorant and sort of insulting,” Montgomery said.
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