The unfolding federal investigation of Ald. Danny Solis (25th) has exposed the behind-the-scenes machinations over a 2.7-acre parcel of state-owned land in Chinatown.
For nearly four decades, the property has been one of the main parking lots handling the throngs who come to Chinatown to eat and shop.
The site’s convenient location at Cermak Road and Wentworth Avenue, adjacent to the CTA Red Line’s Chinatown station, also has made it an object of desire for developers looking for a fresh toehold in the landlocked neighborhood.
Two developers made the parking lot a topic of conversation in 2014 when they met with Solis and Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan — a chat that the FBI arranged to secretly record.
Then, last year, another developer — with support from Solis — tried to slip legislation through the Illinois General Assembly that would have transferred the property from the state to the city to clear the way for a project he was proposing.
That’s intriguing because, by then, Solis was cooperating with federal authorities as part of an investigation in which he secretly recorded Ald. Edward M. Burke, then the powerful chairman of the Chicago City Council’s finance committee.
The Chicago Sun-Times broke the story of Solis’ cooperation with federal authorities shortly after Burke’s arrest. It’s unclear whether the Chinatown parking lot sale is part of the ongoing federal probe, but a Sun-Times investigation has found that Solis had numerous meetings with developers and city officials to promote the project — both before and after he is believed to have started operating as a government informant around June 2016.
During that time, Solis raised more than $1.3 million in campaign money while moving hundreds of measures through the City Council.
The Chinatown parking-lot saga includes a deep cast of characters involved in city and state politics and has all the earmarks of something that would have attracted the interest of federal investigators. And the FBI definitely was on alert when the two developers — See Y. Wong and Kin Kuong Chong — met with Madigan and Solis on Aug. 6, 2014.
As the Sun-Times also previously has reported, their conversation was recorded by Wong and spelled out in a 2016 court affidavit sworn out by federal investigators seeking a search warrant for Solis’ homes and offices.
Wong had begun cooperating with authorities in May 2014 in hopes of getting a reduced sentence for his involvement in an unrelated fraud scheme.
Wong was dealing with Solis as part of his efforts to help Chong put up a small hotel at Archer and Clark Street in Solis’ ward. The project required a zoning change.
Solis, the council’s zoning committee chairman, arranged the meeting with Madigan at the speaker’s Loop law office. According to the affidavit, the House speaker used the opportunity to pitch the men on hiring his law firm to represent the hotel in its real estate tax appeals.
But, at the first lull in the conversation, Wong jumped in with another agenda.
“[Businessman A], he just want to use this opportunity to meet, uh, Mr. Madigan and Alderman, and he is very interested in the Chinatown parking lots project,” Wong said, according to the affidavit, which identifies him as CS-1 and Chong as Businessman A.
The document suggests that Wong did all the talking because Chong doesn’t speak English.
Wong then showed them a site map for a proposed commercial development separate from their hotel site. He went on to say that Chong “wants to know if there is any opportunity, uh, he can work with the state and the city to, to get a nice project, uh, a nice commercial project in Chinatown.”
“OK,” Solis said.
Madigan grunted, “Uh-hmm, uh-hmm,” and asked whether the parking lot was owned by the state. Solis told him it was.
After more discussion about who owned what, the conversation returned to whether the hotel developer would be interested in hiring Madigan’s law firm. Later, outside Madigan’s presence, Solis assured Wong the hotel project would get the necessary zoning approval if they hired Madigan’s firm.
There’s no further mention of the Chinatown parking lot in the FBI affidavit about Solis. But the project remained an active pursuit of the alderman, the Sun-Times found.
In April 2016, the city Department of Planning and Development was approached by another developer-associate of See Wong, also with ambitious plans to develop the parking lot. The developer, Eddie Ni, president of the Windfall Group in Cleveland, proposed building a 30-story combination apartment-hotel-shopping mall with two high-rise towers rising above an eight-story base.
Ni and Wong previously had tried and failed to develop vacant land just across the street as a six-story retail-office building that also would have housed the Chinatown branch of the Chicago Public Library. Those plans collapsed when the city decided to acquire the land for a stand-alone library.
Around that time, Ni turned his sights to the parking-lot property, which the state had acquired in the late 1960s as part of a highway construction project.
To try to shepherd his project through City Hall, Ni’s company hired the law firm of former Ald. William J. P. Banks (36th), Solis’ predecessor as zoning committee chairman.
Banks and his law partner Jerome Schain, in turn, retained the consulting services of Carmen Iacullo, who ran a patronage army of city workers during Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration before moving to an administrative post with the Illinois Department of Transportation, where he landed in the middle of another patronage scandal.
Iacullo said he attended a meeting with Solis and others at the alderman’s City Hall office to strategize over the best approach to obtain the property from IDOT.
That’s the first of several indications that the alderman was a major advocate for the development.
Campaign-finance records show Ni and his companies have given $41,000 to Solis’ political funds since late 2015.
In April 2016, Banks and Iacullo joined Ni’s team at a meeting to pitch the project to city planning officials.
A letter to Banks from a city planning official that documented their discussion advised them to revise their plan and took note of the project’s glaring problem — Ni couldn’t apply for the zoning he needed until he could show he controlled the site.
By December 2017, Ni had accelerated his efforts to solve that problem by hiring Nancy Kimme, former chief of staff to the late Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, sources told the Sun-Times. Kimme had become a go-to lobbyist in Springfield for people trying to influence Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration, on whose transition team she had served, while also keeping peace with Democrats.
Kimme’s assignment was to arrange for IDOT to sell the Chinatown property, which would require state legislation.
But Kimme ran into trouble when she tried to push the project forward last spring. IDOT didn’t want to sell. And state Rep. Theresa Mah, the Chicago Democrat who represents Chinatown, declined to sponsor the legislation Kimme wanted.
Mah, who has received $7,500 in campaign contributions from Ni, told the Sun-Times she opposed the project because of community members’ concerns that it would compound the neighborhood’s parking problems and also eliminate a source of funding for community groups. Since 1981, the state has leased the property to the Chinatown Parking Corp., a not-for-profit corporation that shares its proceeds with community organizations.
Darryl Tom, Chinatown Parking Corp.’s current managing director, said the group had offered conditional support for Ni’s project. Tom said that was based in part on the developers compensating the organization for lost revenue but that they never reached a final agreement.
After the rebuff from Mah, another member of Kimme’s lobbying team brought the proposed sale of the Chinatown parking lot to state Rep. Avery Bourne, a downstate Republican, in the final days of the spring legislative session. Bourne was already the House sponsor of a bill to sell other surplus state land.
Bourne agreed to an amendment directing IDOT to sell the Chinatown property to the city “in consideration of no more than the negotiated fair market value,” to be determined by an appraisal. But Bourne said she withdrew her support after finding out that IDOT still opposed selling the land, and the bill stalled.
Solis, meanwhile, had been participating in strategy sessions on how to push the measure through Springfield and keeping close tabs on its progress, sources say. As recently as August, Solis and the developer’s team met with city planning officials at City Hall as the land sale remained stalled in the Legislature, according to those sources.
Months later, during the Legislature’s November veto session, the state land-sale measure was finally approved — but without the Chinatown land.
The Sun-Times found no evidence of any involvement by Madigan in the parking lot property other than the 2014 discussion that was secretly recorded by Wong. Madigan’s spokesman wouldn’t comment.
In response to an earlier Sun-Times’ story about the 2014 recording, a lawyer for Madigan said the speaker recalled attending several meetings with Solis over the past five years, didn’t know whether they were recorded but has no concern if they were.
Ni, who also is in the process of converting the former Yorkshire Plaza shopping center in Aurora into an Asia-themed mall, said that’s the end of his four-year effort to develop the Chinatown parking lot.
“I don’t think it will work out,” Ni said. “So many issues. We don’t need this. We giving up the project.”
Contributing: Fran Spielman, Jon Seidel