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Emanuel vows to forge ahead with Post Office condemnation

The owner of the old main post office has reached an agreement to sell the building to a New York-based firm. | Sun-Times file photo

British developer Bill Davies has had long enough to develop Chicago’s Old Main Post Office and hasn’t shown an ounce of progress, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Thursday, vowing to forge ahead with a condemnation lawsuit that could get messy.

“We would never get to this point . . . if he had done something with it in the first place. Since 1995, the Post Office has been closed. He took possession of this and purchased it. And you now know he’s behind on his taxes. And he doesn’t have a single plan on the book,” Emanuel said.

“He’s had plenty of time to put together a plan and a proposal. And a lot of people have approached him and he has taken none of them and done nothing with his own ideas. I mean — this is an action of last resort. It wasn’t the first thing.”

Davies’ project manager has called the behemoth of a building that straddles the Eisenhower Expressway “one of the most important buildings in America” and made it clear that the British developer was not about to give it up without a fight.

“I don’t think this would happen anywhere else in the world. If they use eminent domain in that way, it would mean they could choose any building in the city and just say, `We can take that property and pay what we want to pay,’ ” Martin Mulryan, Davies’ project manager, told the Chicago Sun-Times last month.

“It’s a valuable asset. The city wants control of it. I’m sure it will be a low offer. But [Davies] is not going to say to the city, `Come along and take the building if you like,’ ” he said.

On Thursday, Emanuel was asked whether he was prepared for what could be a contentious legal battle over the city’s sweeping power of eminent domain.

A 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling expanded the power of eminent domain in a way that allows local government agencies to take land from one private owner and give it to another in the name of community improvement.

But a subsequent state law raised the bar. It requires the city to prove a property is “blighted” and necessary for a public purpose before condemning it to make way for private development.

“We will pursue eminent domain because, after all of this time, he hasn’t done anything and we’re on firm legal ground to take the steps we’re going to to make sure that key piece of property is putting people to work and part of the economic engine of the city of Chicago,” Emanuel said.

After years of grand plans and empty promises, Emanuel announced last month that he was moving to erase what has become a giant civic embarrassment: the vacant Main Post Office that hovers over the Eisenhower Expressway.

Davies, who purchased the dilapidated hulk of a building eight years ago, was notified of the city’s intention to use its sweeping condemnation powers to acquire the building and solicit bids to redevelop it.

The request for proposals for the entire building — not pieces of it — is expected to be issued this spring, with a winner chosen this summer. The designated developer will be required to bankroll the city’s acquisition of the property and develop the project without tax-increment financing or any other city subsidy.

“This is a critically important building. It’s in a blighted condition. It’s falling apart. It’s been cited for a number of building code violations. It’s potentially dangerous to the public. It’s been sitting there for almost two decades in this state. It’s time to move to reverse that [and] redevelop it,” Planning and Development Commissioner David Reifman said then.

In yet another development headache, Emanuel said Thursday he’s trying to find a way to jump-start development on the site of the old U.S. Steel South Works plant now that a split between the steel giant and prominent Chicago developer Dan McCaffery has killed plans for a “new city” on the long-vacant site.

“We have done what was asked of us to help lift that project off the ground [by extending] Lake Shore Drive. They said, if we would just build that road, things could happen,” the mayor said.

“I still want to see the economic development, the job creation, the investment in a neighborhood. But I can’t go right now beyond what we have done because that’s what was seen as a priority for us to do. It’s for the parties, meaning U.S. Steel and McCaffery, to figure out their road. We’ve done the building of our road.”

McCaffery’s ambitious plan called for building as many as 13,000 homes and 17.5 million square feet of commercial space on the 600-acre site. That deal is dead now that his partnership with U.S. Steel has ended.

But Emanuel said, “We are trying to work with the parties to see . . . what is salvageable. I still think the original plan of residential development and retail development is the right plan, given it’s a unqiue piece of property with a beautiful view on the waterfront which is prime real estate. I still believe in the principles and the fundamentals of that endeavor.”