Mayor Rahm Emanuel got the go-ahead Tuesday to seize control over the vacant Old Main Post Office and solicit bids to redevelop it over the strenuous objections of the building’s owner, British developer Bill Davies.
The Emanuel-appointed Community Development Commission authorized the mayor to use the city’s ultimate development weapon — the power of eminent domain — to erase what has become a giant civic embarrassment.
Prior to the final vote, Davies’ Liverpool representative Charles Hubbard called the eminent domain threat “precipitous” and “potentially disastrous.”
Hubbard said Davies recently lined up a New York-based company to serve as his joint-venture partner on the massive urban renewal project.
“The timing of this meeting could not possibly be worse. The action you may take has the potential to kill 2 1/2 years of work. We have almost in place really good news for the project, and this action could massively jeopardize that,” Hubbard said.
“Eminent domain now would be a disaster. Please defer making such a decision. It would not . . . be fair to a party who has come in and invested a massive amount of money in the face of cynicism.”
Joseph Bisceglia, a Chicago attorney representing Davies, warned the CDC to “be careful you don’t cross the line” by “taking private property from one person and giving it to another.”
He argued that comdemnation was “counter-productive” to the development Chicago has waited decades to see and questioned whether a request-for-proposals (RFP) due back June 10 would attract sufficient interest from developers who would be “buying yourself potential litigation.”
Attorney Jack George, another Chicago attorney representing Davies, then referred to the state law that requires the city to prove a property is “blighted” and necessary for a public purpose before condemning it to make way for private development.
“Where is the public purpose? When you go to condemn property, there has to be a public purpose. Taking the property from this owner after only 2 1/2 years into a six-year right, then turning around and issuing RFPs to other developers so they can develop it does not seem to me that that’s a public purpose,” George said.
“There is no other piece of land that’s going to benefit from the city taking this property other than some other developer coming along and acquiring it.”
None of those warnings had any impact on the pre-ordained decision.
Afterward, Planning and Development Commissioner David Reifman said Davies’ plea for more time rang hollow when he has done nothing with the building since 2009.
“Our role is to responsibly advance the elimination of blight and the redevelopment of the Post Office. This is the most effective strategy we have to advance that,” he said.
“Obviously as owners, they’re going to say what they feel they need to say in this forum . . . I’m not surprised that they’re intending to fight it. But this is a legal action that we intend to pursue.”
The Old Main Post Office closed in 1995. The behemoth of a post office and annex buildings have sat vacant ever since, despite the massive building’s prominent location at the western gateway to the downtown area.
Although Davies’ team struck a somewhat defiant tone before the CDC, it didn’t start out that way.
George began with an extraordinary apology for the incendiary remarks made to the Chicago Sun-Times by Martin Mulryan, Davies’ project manager.
Mulryan accused the mayor of flexing his eminent domain muscle on Chicago’s Old Main Post Office as a smokescreen to divert attention from the furor over his handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting video.
As for the CDC, Mulryan likened the entire process to a dictatorship and questioned why Emanuel doesn’t “just decree it like Caesar would do or like Vladimir Putin would do?”
On Tuesday, George “totally disavowed” the remarks by a man he claimed had “no authority to make the statements” he made about Emanuel and the CDC.
“This is something you have the right to do. I understand that. It’s no ploy,” George said.
“The Emanuel administration has stood for nothing but . . . as much development as they can. For someone to indicate this administration has another reason for having this hearing is wrong, and I want to apologize.”