Domestic violence shelter slowed by environmental cleanup

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Construction of Chicago’s first new domestic violence shelter in more than a decade has been slowed by a brutal winter that delayed soil testing, which ultimately uncovered the need for environmental remediation tied to underground storage tanks.

Last year, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced plans to donate $500,000 in city land and $1.8 million in disputed back taxes and legal fees paid by a Chicago strip club to help build the new shelter in a Chicago Lawn neighborhood where police reports show a high incidence of domestic violence.

At the time, Emanuel projected that the new shelter would cost $4.2 million and open this month. That was followed by a Nov. 25 ceremony where the mayor and Vice President Joe Biden touted the project and its impact on battered women.

On Tuesday, City Hall acknowledged that construction of the shelter has yet to begin and won’t until environmental remediation work is completed and approved by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

Matt Smith, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Family and Support Services, further disclosed that the cost of the project now “ranges from $4.2 million to $6.5 million,” with the opening pushed back until winter.

“The delays we experienced were due to an extended horrible winter. We had frozen ground and couldn’t do the basic tests until the ground thawed,” Smith said Tuesday.

When soil tests were finally conducted, “environmental issues were found in the parking lot area, probably tied to storage tanks, probably fuel storage” at the former city facility, Smith said.

City Hall refused to identify the site’s prior use because the precise location of domestic violence shelters must be concealed to protect battered women and children.

“The city’s commitment is $1.8 million and that’s it. We’re not thinking this is going to increase the cost of construction. We knew there were tanks. We were prepared to deal with remediation, if necessary. [But] we have to present a plan to the state EPA for remediation,” Smith said.

“We’re not sitting idly by [in the meantime]. We’ve been going through construction permitting. We have an existing building to demolish and pre-construction work to do.”

State EPA spokesperson Kim Biggs had no immediate comment on the nature of the cleanup required or the timetable for completion of that work.

The 40-bed shelter expected to serve more than 100 families in its first full year of operation is a partnership between the city and three local non-profits raising money for the project: Women in Need Growing Strong or WINGS; Metropolitan Family Services and the Greater Southwest Development Corporation.

Suites that give each family its own bedroom and allow bathrooms to be shared between only two families to minimize conflicts will make the shelter unique.

So will street-level retail that generates income to operate the shelter and at least three permanent housing units, which will offer an affordable option for battered families transitioning out of the shelter.

Last year, Emanuel agreed to let a clout-heavy joint that bills itself as “Chicago’s only full liquor & topless bar” stay open — and pay the city $2.5 million in disputed back taxes and legal fees — under a settlement that ended a 19-year legal battle.

Since 1993, City Hall had been trying to shut down what’s now known as VIP’s A Gentlemen’s Club, 1531 N. Kingsbury, on grounds that the club’s dancers expose too much of the female anatomy.

To soften the blow of the settlement, the mayor agreed to earmark $1.8 million of the money to build the domestic violence shelter.

“Domestic violence victims should never have to hide in the shadows or suffer in silence,” Emanuel said at the November event with Biden.

“This new facility is more than a place for shelter; it’s an opportunity for a chance at a new life for victims and their families. This will allow victims and their families to heal and work toward the next step in their lives. The city of Chicago will continue to work toward increasing access to resources and fostering future opportunities for families who have been affected by domestic violence.”

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