During his three terms as mayor of Forest Park, Anthony Calderone has not been shy about pushing village hall into the real estate market. Buying up key parcels of land gives the community a greater chance to control its own destiny, Calderone would argue. Along Madison Street, he drove the deal to flip a former animal shelter into a multi-story mixed-use development that helped reshape the strip of bars to include upscale condos, trendy fashion shops and $4 cups of coffee.
That project, Madison Commons, is an example of how successful the village can be in identifying valuable land and pairing it with the right developer.
But not all of these efforts have been successful under the mayor.
The West Cook YMCA recently pulled the plug on a $24 million investment that would have used village-owned land, effectively killing one of Calderone’s grandest visions. For some five years, the mayor led the council through negotiations to sell almost eight acres to the YMCA. The sale would have erased the village’s debt on the property and still left several remaining acres under municipal control.
A much smaller plot at 1000 Beloit was purchased for $330,000 amidst talk of a police sub-station or other community use. Instead, that land will be renovated into a small park that is expected to be complete this year.
“I wish I could be batting 1.000, but sometimes it just doesn’t work that way,” Calderone said.
In 2001, under Calderone’s direction, the council voted to buy some 14 acres near the Altenheim nursing home facility for $3.65 million. The mayor’s goal has always been to install some sort of public use at the site and it seemed the now failed YMCA fit beautifully with that plan. In making the purchase, the village assumed $4.6 million of debt, using the additional money to pay for upgrades to Forest Park’s water meters. Annually, taxpayers shovel $384,000 – a combination of interest and principal — toward the purchase, according to the finance department. Those payments will continue until 2022.
The cost of pursuing the YMCA project for years, said Calderone, was only $50,000 to $60,000 in attorney’s fees. That figure was provided by the municipality’s law firm – possibly a year ago – he said, at the village’s request. The firm did not provide any documentation in support of its estimate, said the mayor, nor were such records requested.
“We weren’t keeping a running tally,” Calderone said.
Earnest money paid by the YMCA would help offset some of the village’s expenses, said the mayor. The non-profit paid a one-time figure of $175,000, and then made seven or eight payments of $14,500 to the village.
“We’ve got hard money from the YMCA designed to cover the debt service with at least that portion,” he said.
Though Forest Park’s annual payments on its land purchase total $384,000, Calderone suggested that because $1 million of the $4.6 million note went toward the water department, the earnest money could cover a year or two’s worth of payments. Assuming eight monthly payments were made by the YMCA, the earnest money amounts to approximately $291,000.
According to Calderone, no one person involved in the negotiations with the YMCA deserves more blame than any other for the project coming unhinged. The lengthy and contentious discussions were due partially to an election that brought new commissioners to the table midway, he said. As the chief negotiator for the village, Calderone said it would have been difficult to force a quicker pace. However, he also said he should have ended sooner the one-sided diatribes of council members unwilling to concede their minority positions on the project.
“If there was any one thing I could have changed, it is that debate is good, but once you’ve made your point you need to move on,” Calderone said. “It was a monologue. It wasn’t even a dialogue.”
Over the next 30 to 60 days, the mayor said he expects the council will begin discussing anew the possibilities for developing the 14 acres it still owns. Calderone said he still would not favor a high-density residential project, and could support seeing the land remain as open space. Potential expansions to the Eisenhower Expressway and Chicago Transit Authority rail service are among the factors to consider, said Calderone.