November 21, 2004

Expansion draws ire of Woodlawn residents

A few of Woodlawn and Grove Parc's tired, poor, and huddled masses gathered Wednesday night in Cobb Coffee Shop at an RSO-sponsored event, putting a face on the community that will be largely driven by the University's expansion south of the Midway.

"Bursting the Bubble: Everything you wanted to know about Woodlawn but were afraid to ask," featured residents from the community, student organizers from Angels of Def, and questions from a curious audience of about 75 students.

Irate event participants directed their criticism not only at "University imperialism," as one Woodlawn resident called it, but also at Woodlawn community organizations. Drawing criticism were The Woodlawn Organization (TWO), headed by the Reverend Dr. Leon Finney, the Woodlawn Preservation and Investment Corporation (WPIC), founded by Bishop Arthur Brazier in 1987, and 20th Ward Alderman Arenda Troutman.

Of major concern was the potential closing of the Grove Parc Plaza apartments on Cottage Grove north of 63rd Street. Students and neighborhood tenant organizers have been behind a push to inform residents that they may soon be out on the streets.

Sharon Payne, a member of the Student/Tenant Organizing Project, said that Grove Parc residents believe they will receive vouchers for new housing if they are removed from the apartment complex.

Grove Parc is, however, not public housing. This means that the city shoulders no responsibility for providing new housing for displaced residents.

"They're either going to tear it down or turn it into town houses," Lonnie Richardson, Grove Parc resident and tenant organizer, said. Richardson said community leaders are hoping that a shopping center or high-priced homes will replace the low-income residences.

University Director of Community Affairs Henry Webber said in a telephone interview that the University is not going to purchase or develop land south of 61st Street.

"We are building on vacant University land," Webber said. "The claim (that Grove Parc is being targeted for demolition) really flies in the fact of facts."

Other residents expressed frustration that they are not being considered in the decision-making process. "(TWO) says that they represent the community's interests but they don't," said Janice Fuller, a Woodlawn tenant organizer. "For one thing their meetings are closed to the public."

Fuller said that she and twenty other residents attempted to attend a TWO meeting a few months ago. TWO board members allegedly threatened to call the police to have Fuller and her companions removed.

TWO, once a staunch opponent of University expansion in the 60s and 70s, now manages 4,150 units of housing in Woodlawn. It has been a major developer in the neighborhood.

TWO said 10-15 years ago that the University was targeting the Grove Parc Plaza apartments on Cottage Grove north of 63rd Street for conversion into student dormitories, according to Richardson.

"Back then, we got buses together, organized a protest, and made it clear that we wanted to stay in those apartments," Richardson said.

He added that Grove Parc used to be populated by the working class. That has changed in past years.

"Once WPIC took over, the apartments became subsidized," Richardson said. "They were paying working poor to move out."

Residents suspect that the deterioration, crime, and poverty within the apartment complex serve as a pretext for its future demolition. Some residents believe that the University gives its tacit approval to WPIC's negligence of maintenance in hopes that there will soon be reason to close the complex.

Webber refuted those facts, and added that WPIC has spent several million dollars on refurbishing Grove Parc apartments, and that the University has helped with the crime issue by expanding University Police coverage to 64th Street and by posting individual police details within Grove Parc Plaza.

"There are challenges to providing high quality housing for people on very limited incomes," Webber noted. He said that WPIC as an organization is committed to keeping rents affordable, and encouraged tenants to raise any concerns they may have with the executive director or staff of WPIC."The best way to get rid of residents in these places is to stop doing work on the decrepit buildings," Sharon Payne, a member of STOP. "There is a University board member who sits on the board of WPIC. They say there is no collusion, but there is a lot of it."

Webber, one of two University employees who sits on the board of WPIC, said he has made no secret of his board membership. Director of University Police Rudolph Nimocks chairs WPIC.

"This fact is listed in my official bio," Webber said. "There is no hiding of any of this."

Event participants lacked definite answers to the question of the future of Grove Parc and Woodlawn.

"I know someone who works for WPIC. She doesn't sit on the board, but knows about the plans for future development (in Grove Parc)," Fuller said. "And what she told me was, ‘it's in the plans, it's coming down.'"

Residents and students claim to know why. Community organizer and University graduate Matthew Ginsberg-Jaeckle cautioned against taking the denials by University administration of University involvement in Grove Parc for granted.

"(Henry) Webber was asked by a Grove Parc resident at a recent meeting about the future of Grove Parc," Ginsberg-Jaeckle said. "Webber responded that he didn't know anything about that and that ‘you'll have to ask WPIC.'"

Ginsberg-Jaeckle said that Webber sits on the board of WPIC, implying he would know their plans for development.

"I don't believe that the characterization of that exact quote is quite correct," Webber said. "I think I said that the question is best answered by the chairman of WPIC (Nimocks) who was in the room at the time of the meeting."

The University, for its part, distributed a memo to Woodlawn residents last month, detailing short-term projects for University construction north of 61st Street. Although the University has expressed commitment to not expanding past 61st Street, the only mention of "longer-term projects" was that they would begin by 2020. Despite its lack of land ownership south of 61st Street, the University has helped fund construction in Woodlawn.

Student/Tenant organizers are gearing up for next Tuesday's round table discussion featuring Webber, Finney, Ginsberg-Jaeckle, and Mattie Butler, head of the Woodlawn East Community and Neighbors. The even will be held in the Ida Noyes Cloister Club at 7:15 p.m. Food from Siam will be provided.