Illinois needs better rules for selling off unneeded land

The Damen Silos property, which is right on the Chicago River, should have been part of a master plan focused on redeveloping the land along the river in a way most beneficial to city residents.

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Se acaba el tiempo para evitar la demolición de los históricos silos de grano, situados junto al Río Chicago, cerca de la calle 29th y la Avenida Damen. | Mark Capapas/Archivos Sun-Times

Gov. J.B. Pritzker should have held off on selling the Damen silos site along the Chicago River until the public weighed in on the location’s future.

Mark Capapas/Sun-Times file

Illinois has an inadequate process for selling off land it no longer needs. It ought to do better.

The glaring shortcoming was demonstrated when the state unloaded the so-called Damen Silos at 29th Street and Damen Avenue for $6.52 million to MAT Limited Partnership, which is owned by asphalt manufacturer Michael Tadin Jr. MAT has not endeared itself to many of the residents living near its asphalt plant in McKinley Park.

Clearly, the 23-acre Damen property, which is right on the river, should have been part of a master plan focused on helping to redevelop the land along the Chicago River in a way most beneficial to city residents.

Various groups around the city have said they want park space, a bike path or both on the site, opponents of the sale say. And transforming the river from an old-time industrial waterway to an environmental asset for the public has long been a goal for advocates of the river. But none of that was taken into account.

The Illinois Department of Central Management Services said the state simply followed rules that said the land should be sold to the highest bidder. But Kate Eakin, president of the McKinley Park Development Council, told us the law requires only a sale at fair market value, and it does not apply if the state is selling the land to another government, such as the city of Chicago.

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At the very least, the state could have postponed the sale to give the city a chance to explore whether it wanted to take on the property. Opponents of the sale say the state closed its deal with MAT on Dec. 20 but didn’t notify anyone until Dec. 23, when many city offices were closed either for the holidays or because of bad weather. That does not seem like the way a transparent government should operate.

Generally, accepting the highest bid makes sense. We understand there is a risk to letting state politicians feel free to sell off property without insisting on the highest return to taxpayers. And community groups that have called for a voice in other various projects have not always had a realistic understanding about what can be achieved.

But there are instances, such as in this case, in which the public benefit from a thoughtful reuse of the property would have been greater than simply getting some extra money tacked onto the sale price and having the property put back on the tax rolls.

That’s why better rules are needed.

Illinois residents deserve to know what will be the ultimate use of land the state is selling, said Gerald W. Adelmann, president & CEO of Openlands.

“We want to make sure the key stakeholders have opportunities before a sale to express their concerns,” Adelmann said.

As it stands now, the state does not require any plan for a site before selling it, other than making sure no state agencies want it. The Damen site, with its historic grain silos, is one of the last remaining large plots along the Chicago River that could be used for the public.

The long-idle silos, which sit in a manufacturing district, evoke a time when Midwestern grain poured into the city and helped Chicago become the world’s fastest-growing metropolis during the final decades of the 1800s. Neighbors fear any demolition of the silos might release pollutants, including asbestos, into the community.

Done right, the site could be turned into a city jewel providing open space and recreation. But conservationists say no one, including the state, can produce the document in which the state notified the city of the pending sale.

As it is now, the disposition process the state follows for situations like this is in obvious need of improvement. The state, which works on behalf of the public, has to get it right next time.

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