Webster Square site

If it seems like the struggle over plans to redevelop the shuttered Lincoln Park Hospital as a mix of homes, retail, and offices has been going on a long time, get this: some of the players say it’s rooted, in part, in a struggle 27 years ago over a residential project about six blocks away.

The City Council on May 4th approved the development, known as Webster Square, after more than two years of community meetings and other preparations. In late May, the attorney Martin Oberman filed a lawsuit on behalf of neighborhood groups to stop the development.

For Richard Zisook and Michael Supera, the principals of Sandz Development (the developer behind the project), it’s 1984 all over again. Back then, they were the developers of the townhouse component of Eugenie Terrace, a project at 1700 North LaSalle Street that also included a 44-story apartment tower. What’s more, Oberman was then the local (43rd Ward) alderman—and Oberman opposed the development, especially the high-rise. “The people here simply don’t want the project built,” Oberman told the Chicago Tribune reporter John Kass at the time.

Despite the alderman’s opposition to a development planned for his own ward, the project was approved in the midst of the tumultuous Council Wars that plagued Mayor Harold Washington’s first term. “I was overridden by clout,” Oberman, a Washington ally, told me Friday. “I fought like crazy to stop that development, but I didn’t succeed.”

Eugenie Terrace
The Eugenie Terrace highrise

Now Oberman is fighting to overturn the Webster Square project, even though it had the approval of the local alderman. Of course, it’s a little more complicated than that: Vi Daley, who was the alderman of the 43rd Ward until late May, had endorsed the project to the City Council. Her successor, Michelle Smith, who took office a few weeks after the council approved the development, has proposed an ordinance to change the site’s zoning so the project can’t be allowed.

Could an old battle scar be a factor in Oberman’s opposition to the Webster Square project? “It probably motivated him a little,” Zisook suggested. “He had his aldermanic privilege denied; it was embarrassing. He wasn’t very happy.”

“I’m here as a retained lawyer,” countered Oberman. “There is no grudge. If they’re suggesting that, that’s nonsense. All that happened 30 years ago.”

The present battle hinges mostly on the increased traffic that opponents say Webster Square will bring to the neighborhood. They are especially wary of trucks delivering to the 12,000-square-foot Fresh Market grocery slated to open in 2012 on the site of the old hospital’s parking structure, which is currently being demolished.

Meanwhile, the lawsuit represented by Oberman and the down-zoning proposal by Alderman Smith loom over the project. “I didn’t think we would still have questions [pending] after 28 months,” Zisook said. “I thought people would see that we’re creating about 500 construction jobs, revitalizing a dead three-acre site, and bringing a boutique grocer in. I think the opponents just want to wear us out—but they can’t wear me out.”

Oberman, on the other hand, is eager to see the lawsuit go forward. “This is one of the worst [development] decisions I’ve seen in the 40 years I’ve been involved as an alderman and a resident of Lincoln Park,” he said.