Community unites to oppose redevelopment project

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Community unites to oppose redevelopment project

April 09, 2021 - 13:58
The commentary below represents the ideas, observations and opinions of the author.

The process of considering rezoning requests for the Calumet Country Club redevelopment project was one for the history books.

Homewood Mayor Richard Hofeld, who has been involved in village government since the mid-1970s, said the community response to the proposed redevelopment of the country club in February and March was more intense than anything he can remember. 

The closest thing was the attempt in 1978 by the Madison Square Garden company to develop a residential subdivision on the site of the former Washington Park racetrack, which was destroyed by fire in 1977. 

Hofeld was a member of the Plan Commission at the time and remembers meetings being held in the village auditorium to accommodate about 300 residents who came to express oppostion to the project.

According to an item in the Tinley Park Star/Herald on Sunday, May 28, 1978: “It became evident that the developers of the racetrack property face a long and rocky road before they arrive at a plan that will satisfy the community to which they annexed five years ago.” 

More than 40 years later, the attempt to redevelop Calumet Country Club appears to be traveling a similar road.

The times are much different, but some of the methods of engagement are the same. The Star/Herald article from decades ago reported 150 people demonstrating at a plan commission meeting.

Fast forward to 2021 to see a similar movement from South Suburbs for Greenspace Over Concrete organized to stop developer Diversified Partners from redeveloping the Calumet Country Club project. Dozens of SSGOC members and others showed up for each village board and planning and zoning commission meeting. They participated in person and by video conference. Some demonstrated outside village hall carrying signs and chanting the organization’s primary slogan, “Truck no!” 

Today’s opposition group has tools that weren’t available in 1978, especially Google and Facebook. Online searches provide broad reach and convenience that has enabled project opponents to quickly gather facts to bolster their arguments. Social media has allowed them to attract more people from the immediate area to join the cause and to share information gathered.

SSGOC’s Facebook group, created on Jan. 27,  has more than 1,500 members as of March 24. 

As part of the settlement agreement between Homewood and Diversified Partners, the village was required to consider four zoning issues that would allow the project to move forward, including rezoning the property from open lands to light manufacturing use. 

The commission began the public hearing on the issues Feb. 11 with presentations by the developer’s representatives followed by questions from commission members.

With limited time, only two residents spoke that night, asking questions about the environmental impact of the project on the adjacent residential areas and whether the project was an example of environmental racism.

The public hearing was continued and eventually stretched over four meetings. The commission held a final meeting on March 4 to vote on the four issues and declined to recommend any of them to the Board of Trustees.

During that three-week process, there were some memorable moments. 

Kevin Crabtree, one of the most outspoken members of the opposition group, gave several emotional statements during the public hearing, including one in which he got down on his knees and begged the developers representatives to reconsider the trucking hub use for the property.

Gabe Cohn, 10, at one point read “The Lorax,” the classic environmental children’s book by Dr. Suess. He reprised his performance at an SSGOC rally prior to the village board meeting on March 9.  

Keaton Fisher made the meetings and protest events more colorful by attending in a clown outfit. 

Several residents held the floor for extended periods during the hearing, peppering the developer’s representatives with questions, not only their own but those provided by neighbors who were not able to attend. At the Feb. 25 meeting, Jenna Weglarz and Kristy Reardon spent a combined 2 hours and 15 minutes at the podium.

Some of the meetings were conducted while serenaded by chanting protesters just outside the meeting room. Passions were high throughout the proceedings. At one meeting there was a brief scuffle before residents were allowed to enter the building. 

Danielle Nolen-Ragland may have tapped most succinctly into an element of the proposal that bothered residents and P&Z commissioners. 

“We’ve made it so clear that we’re not for this,” she said. “If you’re going to do it anyway, the least you can do is tell us that you’re going to make an effort to take care of us. You haven’t done that. We’re getting a lot of ‘I-don’t-knows.’”
She was referring to the fact that the project does not have an end user, so the dramatic rezoning was, to a certain extent, speculative.

It prepares the way for the kind of development Diversified Partners believes is the best and highest use of the property. But many details of the project can only be determined when a specific site operator is identified.

P&Z commissioners also expressed frustration with the lack of definitive answers they received during the long process.

The rezoning process not only pitted residents against an out-of-state developer but created tensions between residents and village government. Village officials had opposed the trucking hub idea since it was proposed in February 2019. But after fighting it for nearly two years, it appeared likely the developer would succeed in disconnecting the property from Homewood, so trustees agreed to allow the project to proceed in order to retain oversight authority.

Some residents were infuriated by the settlement agreement and saw the village’s cooperation with the developer as a betrayal. That tension contributed to the most unfortunate moment in the saga so far. 

Econonomic Development Director Angela Mesaros, expressing frustration at the behavior of some residents, was caught on a live mic making disparaging comments that deeply offended many of the opponents of the project. She turned in her resignation on March 2. 

Hofeld and members of the P&Z Commission expressed regret at losing Mesaros and thanked her for her service. 

The tension between allies eased some, though, when first the commission and then the village board voted against the rezoning issues. The green light on the project turned to red. 

After village trustees voted down the rezoning, most residents expressed gratitude that the board had listened to their pleas.

Ultimately, elected officials and residents have been on the same side since the industrial use of the site was proposed. 

I was surprised a community organization against the project didn’t emerge in 2019 when the lawsuit to disconnect the property was filed. It turned out the settlement agreement was the spark that lit the fuse. 

Although this proposal generated a good deal of conflict, it also generated a good deal of energy and community involvement in a process that routinely is ignored by most people.
In spite of the rough and tumble along the way, that’s a good thing.