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Group sues to block city from giving away NW Side firehouse

The Copernicus Foundation said officials unfairly spurned its $300,000 offer for the Jefferson Park property.

The old firehouse at 4839 N. Lipps Ave.
The sale of a former firehouse at 4839 N. Lipps Ave. is being challenged by the Copernicus Foundation.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The Copernicus Foundation, charging its $300,000 offer to buy a former firehouse in Jefferson Park was unfairly rejected, has sued to stop the city from essentially giving it to a housing developer.

Housing Department officials have opted to sell the building at 4839 N. Lipps Ave. to Ambrosia Homes Development for $10, according to documents reviewed by the city’s Community Development Commission. The nominal price represents the difference between its appraised value and an estimated cost of removing asbestos and lead-based paint.

“Sometimes, things go on behind the scenes,” said Robert Fioretti, a former alderman and an attorney representing Copernicus. “We are advocating for an open, transparent and fair process.”

A spokeswoman for the city’s Law Department said it hasn’t seen the suit and declined to comment. Court records show the case was given a March 10, 2021, hearing date before Judge Anna Helen Demacopoulos. The lawsuit was filed Tuesday.

Officials rejected the foundation’s offer, in part, because it could not give a timetable for its improvements to the two-story building. The lawsuit alleged Copernicus was never given access to the building for safety reasons, so it could not provide a timetable.

Fioretti said Copernicus stands by its $300,000 offer despite the lack of access and that it gave the city tax forms showing its ability to fund the work. It wants to rent the ground floor to a brewpub and convert the upstairs to four apartments. The foundation’s office is nearby.

Ambrosia’s proposal is similar but would add a third floor to the building. An owner of the firm, Tim Pomaville, said Lake Effect Brewing would occupy the ground floor, with the levels above containing nine apartments. The firm has pledged to restore the facade, a priority of neighborhood groups.

Pomaville declined to comment on the lawsuit but said the city gave him access to the property. “We were in there back in 2017. We’ve been working on this for years,” he said.

Both would-be buyers have launched online petition campaigns in support of their proposals.

The Copernicus offer came in after the city, following rules for negotiated land sales, reached a tentative deal with Ambrosia but advertised for alternative bids during a 30-day window. Local 58 of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America also expressed interest. A spokesman said the union’s offer was for $1.

The old firehouse is within the 45th Ward represented by Ald. James Gardiner, who backed a zoning change to support Ambrosia’s plans. Gardiner, in a Nov. 5 email to Housing Commissioner Marisa Novara that was provided to the Sun-Times, urged her to meet with all interested purchasers “to do what is best for our community.”

Fioretti emphasized that while Copernicus, a nonprofit organization, would own the firehouse, the building would be placed on the property tax rolls. The firehouse dates from the early 20th century and has been vacant for about 10 years.

Pomaville said it is apparently the second firehouse to occupy the site.

An archival photo of the old firehouse at 4839 N. Lipps Ave.
Ambrosia Homes Development