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Planned demolition of deteriorated South Side landmark sparks outcry

Historical photo of Washington Park National Bank Building in Woodlawn

The Washington Park National Bank Building in Woodlawn will be demolished to make way for a mixed-use development project. | IL4781_2. Courtesy, Indiana Geological and Water Survey, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.

Old things take a lot of work.

Still, there are days when I wish I had hung on to my favorite car, a 2003 Saab Silver Convertible, even though the upkeep was breaking me.

So I get why there’s a dispute brewing over the Cook County Land Bank Authority’s (CCLBA) decision to give the job of redeveloping the corner of 63rd and Cottage Grove to a developer armed with a sledgehammer.

Although it is being billed as a “mixed-use” commercial development of the Washington Park National Bank Building in Woodlawn, it is still the demolition of a 95-year-old South Side landmark.

The deterioration of the once majestic structure is a testament to the neglect and abandonment that has existed in Woodlawn.

Owned by the Rev. Leon Finney, the bank building was once the home of “The Woodlawn Organization” founded by the renowned Saul Alinsky.

While surrounding areas were developed in spurts, the Washington Park National Bank Building was left to rot, racking up $3.7 million in unpaid taxes over the last two decades.

The longevity of the unpaid tax debt is a testament of a different sort: The support Finney, an esteemed yet controversial figure, has enjoyed among local government officials.

Frankly, there was bound to be dissent over the fate of the bank building even if every “i” was dotted and every “t” was crossed.

But Woodlawn Works, one of the losing bidders, is raising questions about the fairness of the process.

That group argues the winning bidder, Revive 6300, a joint venture between DL3 Realty, LP and Greenlining Realty USA (and the only group that proposed demolition), made several major changes to their proposal after the RFP response submission deadline.

“The results of this ‘model process’ — CCLBA’s first large-scale mixed use development — bodes poorly for other historic structures in predominantly minority and low income communities,” the group said in a press release it put out two days after the CCLBA made its announcement.

Rob Rose, executive director of the CCLBA, denies any trickery took place.

“Changes were made to all proposals after the RFP to respond to a request from the selection committee,” Rose said in a written response to questions from the Sun-Times.

It is difficult to see the winning development team, led by Leon Walker, head of DL3 Realty LP, and Lamell McMorris, founder of Greenlining Realty USA, as anything other than a dream team.

Both African-American men were raised on the South Side, and both have a deep respect for its culture and history.

“It is the goal that this project will continue the revitalization efforts of the community and restore the vitality of the neighborhoods we knew as kids,” McMorris said in a press release announcing the partnership.

But you can’t put new wine in old bottles.

These are new players, but the same old complaints abound.

What I find most disheartening is the spokesperson for Woodlawn Works asked for anonymity, claiming he feared for his safety because of “powerful players” in Woodlawn.

The most powerful players in Woodlawn are Finney and the Rev. Byron Brazier of Apostolic Church of God.

Finney is too old to be a threat, and Brazier is too holy.

Rose assured me that neither man is involved in this project.

“I adamantly maintain my independence from those groups. Leon Finney owned [the bank building] before the Land Bank took it. After we wiped out the taxes, his involvement is not allowed under the tax code. We have no agreements or financial arrangements with Dr. Brazier,” Rose told me.

Unfortunately, there are only a few people fortunate enough to be in the position that McMorris and Walker are in right now.

Because of their expertise and connections, they are the go-to guys for long-awaited revitalization projects in neighborhoods like Woodlawn.

That is going to make them formidable competition.

Rose said he met personally with the head of Woodlawn Works and explained why the group’s bid was “inadequate” to rehab the building.

In a dissection of the CCLBA’s RFP process posted at woodlawnworks.org, the group points out what it considers the RFP’s shortcomings and urges residents to “strongly” oppose the demolition of the 1924 historic building.

Interestingly, Rose said during the yearlong process, the groups now opposing new construction were silent.

“These groups never opposed the new construction idea. That is not what the said privately or publicly. No one came out and said, ‘This building can’t be torn down,'” he said.

The Washington Park Bank Building sat vacant for 40 years.

The fact that people are now fighting over it represents progress.