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Emanuel accused of using Post Office seizure as smokescreen

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel says judges also must bear some responsibility for the city's rise in crime — it's not just up to the police. | Associated Press file photo

Mayor Rahm Emanuel was accused Monday of flexing his eminent domain muscle on Chicago’s Old Main Post Office to divert attention from the furor over his handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting video.

One day before the Community Development Commission was poised to ratify the mayor’s plan, Brtitish developer Bill Davies vowed to exhaust “all legal means to stop” City Hall from seizing the building from Davies and soliciting bids to redevelop it.

“A lot of things have happened in Chicago in the last few months that the mayor has been criticized for that are far more serious than a building that’s not being developed. Issues in the Chicago Police Department have put him under great pressure,” said Martin Mulryan, Davies’ project manager.

“He’s had a lot of bad press lately. He needs something [to serve as a political smokescreen]. But you wouldn’t get my vote by stealing other peoples’ buildings.”

Mulryan acknowledged that the script for Tuesday’s CDC meeting has already been written.

First, the Emanuel-appointed panel is expected to authorize the city to acquire the 2.5 million-square-foot building that straddles the Eisenhower Expressway. That will be followed by a second vote to green-light the mayor’s plan to issue a request-for-proposals (RFP) from developers interested in purchasing the building from the city and redeveloping it.

The RFP for the entire building — not pieces of it— is now expected to be issued later this month with a winner chosen this summer, under an expedited schedule disclosed Monday.

The designated developer will be required to bankroll the city’s acquisition of the property and develop the project without tax-increment-financing (TIF) funds or any other city subsidy, Planning and Development Commissioner David Reifman has said.

Mulryan likened the entire process to a dictatorship.

“Why bother having a hearing when the mayor instructs people what to do?  People on that commission don’t have a mind of their own. Why doesn’t the mayor just decree it like Caesar would do or like [Russian President] Vladimir Putin would do?” Mulryan said.

“I don’t think it would happen anywhere else in the world. Maybe it would happen in Moscow. It’s almost a form of communism where the mayor sees a building he likes and hands it to one of his supporters who may have assisted him in the past.”

He added, “Chicago is a very strange city. Politics and money are so powerful in Chicago. Somebody said to me a long time ago, `To enable you to do work in Chicago, you need political sponsors. We haven’t really developed our political side, which we should have done. Developing connections is more important than developing the building. We don’t have the right connections in the right places.”

Mayoral spokesman Adam Collins issued an emailed statement in response to Mulryan’s broadside.

“After 20 years of seeing the Old Main Post Office sit vacant and hearing nothing but empty promises, time is up, and it’s time to move forward. We are not going to be distracted from our ultimate goal of ensuring this building becomes a productive force in Chicago’s economy,” Collins wrote.

Last week, Emanuel vowed to forge ahead with a condemnation lawsuit that could get messy. He argued that Davies has had long enough to develop the building and hasn’t show an ounce of progress.

“We would never get to this point . . . if he had done something with it in the first place. Since 1995, the Post Office has been closed. He took possession of this and purchased it. And you now know he’s behind on his taxes. And he doesn’t have a single plan on the book,” Emanuel said then.

“He’s had plenty of time to put together a plan and a proposal. And a lot of people have approached him and he has taken none of them and done nothing with his own ideas. I mean — this is an action of last resort. It wasn’t the first thing.”

The mayor said he was prepared for what could be a contentious legal battle over the city’s sweeping power of eminent domain.

A 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowed local government agencies to take land from one private owner and give it to another provided the surrounding community stands to benefit.

But a subsequent state law requires the city to prove a property is “blighted” and necessary for a public purpose before condemning it to make way for private development.

“We will pursue eminent domain because, after all of this time, he hasn’t done anything and we’re on firm legal ground to take the steps we’re going to to make sure that key piece of property is putting people to work and part of the economic engine of the city of Chicago,” the mayor said then.

On Monday, Mulryan countered, “We will take all legal means to stop it from happening. If he has that ability, every businessman in Chicago should not sleep comfortably in the bed. He may come along and decide he wants their building if you don’t work to the city’s program or what the city wants.”

The behemoth of a post office and annex buildings have sat vacant ever since 1995, despite the massive building’s prominent location at the western gateway to the downtown area.

It’s become a giant civic embarrassment.

After purchasing the building in 2009, Davies failed to deliver on his plan for a massive mixed-use complex that included three modern skyscrapers flanking the Art Deco post office, one of them taller than the Willis Tower.

More recently, Davies has talked about starting small — by seeking tenants for 300 “micro apartments” in the 250-to-600-square foot range — to generate a $20 million-a-year revenue stream that could help attract financing for the larger, mixed-use development he still hopes to build.

“It was too much risk for funders. If the development has an income, the funding becomes a lot easier. The second phase pays for the third phase,” Mulryan said.

“The biggest strength Bill Davies has got is his ability to see potential in a building that nobody wants and believes is close to worthless . . . In Chicago, he has been slower than I would want to happen. But it takes time to turn something for a worthless building to a high-volume building.”