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Catholic school closing concerns nearly stall approval of Holy Name development

Artist's rendering of a new high-rise development proposed in River North at the site of the current parking lot for Holy Name Cathedral. | Image courtesy of Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture

Chicago’s 6th-tallest building would rise on a surface parking lot across the street from Holy Name Cathedral under a $500 million project advanced Thursday amid complaints about the landowner and “beneficiary”: the Archdiocese of Chicago.

For a while, it looked like the City Council’s Zoning Committee just might stall approval of the twin tower project known as “One Chicago Place,” to be built on an Archdiocese-owned parking lot at State Street and Chicago Avenue used by Holy Name parishioners.

South Side Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) was so incensed by the Archdiocese recent decision to close five schools because of low enrollment, he threatened to request a “quorum call.”

The parliamentary maneuver could have stalled a vote, since a majority of the Zoning Committee’s 18 members were not in the City Council chambers when Lopez made the threat.

“The beneficiary of moving forward on this asphalt parking lot is an organization that I am continuing to see disinvest, consolidate and trim in communities all across Chicago — communities like mine in particular — with no kind of engagement or discussion,” Lopez said.

Ald. Ray Lopez cast the only vote against the plan. | File photo

“Our residents, our parishioners are owed answers when they see and read something like this and, at the same time, are being told, ‘We have no money for anything. We’re leaving.’ And yet, the sixth-tallest building in Chicago is being built, benefitting them,” Lopez said.

He added: “I can’t, in good conscience, support something like this when the beneficiary is going to continue disservicing my neighborhoods, despite the exorbitant windfall that it will be making. … It’s important for residents of my community who see the Catholic Church leaving, who see the Catholic Church closing.”

Ald. Deb Mell (33rd), the City Council’s only openly lesbian member, said she, too, has concerns about giving a windfall to a Catholic Church that “actively, viciously worked against marriage equality” during her days in the Illinois General Assembly.

“Not to mention that I went to grammar school with a pedophile priest and I saw where the Catholic Church’s money was spent” during the priest abuse scandal, Mell said, acknowledging that she is “very encouraged by the new cardinal.”

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) strongly disagreed, telling developers that it’s a “good thing you’re paying the Archidocese a lot of money” because they need it.

“As a matter of fact, I would like for you to give them more money….This is the very reason why they need more money. So they don’t have to close down schools and they don’t have to close down places,” Burnett said.

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) says the Catholic Church doesn’t brag about its good works. | Sun-Times file photo

Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd), whose ward includes the Holy Name project, was so concerned about the threat of a quorum call, he ducked out of the City Council chambers to place a quick call to the Archdiocese to arrange a meeting between Cardinal Blasé Cupich and Lopez.

“If you would agree to such a meeting and allow this to proceed today and sit down and see if you can get your concerns addressed by the Cardinal, I think that would be appropriate,” Hopkins told Lopez.

“The Catholic Church is not a democracy. It is not a government. It is not subject to the rules that we’re so familiar with: FOIA, transparency, open meetings. So, when we have an opportunity like this where a lay person…has the ability to use a little leverage and address those concerns, Ald. Lopez, I certainly respect what you’re doing.”

In the end, the peacemaking gesture wasn’t necessary. Zoning Committee Chairman Danny Solis (25th) assured Hopkins that a quorum was present. Lopez cast the only “no” vote.

Archdiocese spokesperson Anne Maselli said the money from the land she called “Cathedral Square”—an estimated $115 million— will be used to retire debt.

As for the five schools targeted for closing, Maselli said, “The Archdiocese has closed schools with very low enrollment that are not financially viable. In every case, we have worked with parents to find a nearby Catholic school for their children.”

It was the second time in a week that the separation of church and state had caused a problem at City Hall.

Last week, a divided City Council signed off on a $5.5 million subsidy to Illinois’ largest Catholic health system, in spite of Presence Health’s anti-abortion policy, after an emotionally charged debate that focused on the volatile issues of race and a woman’s right to choose.

The twin-tower complex on a parking lot currently used by Holy Name parishioners will include 869 residential units at a cost of $500 million.

Both towers will rise from a nine-story commercial base. Roughly 225 of the development’s 1,090 parking spaces– none of which would be visible from the street–would be reserved for use by Holy Name parishioners.