Waukegan task force seeks to improve or demolish dilapidated structures: ‘If it’s cleared, developers will come’

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A Christmas Day fire that destroyed a long-abandoned, already partially demolished downtown Waukegan building accentuated the need and potential for the city’s task force which monitors abandoned and dilapidated structures. It took firefighters six hours to extinguish the blaze because it was necessary to call a demolition crew to further tear down walls to protect the firefighters’ safety. Fire Marshall Steven Lenzi was just grateful no one was trapped inside. “We have to treat every building like it’s occupied,” he said. “We had to go through there and search for homeless people. It was Christmas morning, and I’m sure glad there weren’t any homeless people trapped inside.”

The task force — consisting of Mayor Sam Cunningham, along with representatives of the building, police and fire departments — began more than three years ago. It monitors commercial and residential properties posing a danger to the community to see they are restored or torn down. At a Dec. 21 City Council meeting, five homes — four in the First Ward — were approved for demolition. Michael Purtell, the city’s building commissioner and part of the task force, said getting demolition bids for several properties at a time is cost-effective.
[Most read] Days after she was sworn in, Illinois U.S. Rep. Mary Miller facing criticism for invoking Adolf Hitler during speech in Washington Purtell said money for the effort comes from a state grant and an allocated city fund. Cunningham said he got the idea for the task force as the First Ward alderman before becoming mayor. The ward starts at the city’s southern boundary and ends at Water Street downtown. He sees it as a way to reduce crime, improve neighborhoods and enhance downtown redevelopment.

Half the police calls in the ward at the time were for the five or six homes on Jensen Court, Cunningham said. They were old buildings owned by investors or older residents no longer able to maintain them. King Park was adjacent to the properties. “I called the (Waukegan) Park District boys and asked them if they wanted to expand the park,” Cunningham said. “They did. The (Waukegan) Fire Department did a slow burn. A lot of departments were involved and learned from this.”

Shortly after Cunningham became mayor in 2017, he formed the task force. As downtrodden properties disappear, he said other residents begin to take better care of their homes and then even more do.
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The building under demolition, which burned Dec. 25 at 18 South Genesee St., once housed a fruit market. Lenzi said it is just south of the empty Waukegan Building at 4 South Genesee, which was vacant when he joined the department nearly three decades ago. With a number of longtime unoccupied buildings in downtown Waukegan like the two Lenzi described, Cunningham said turning them into vacant lots makes them more attractive to developers.

“If it’s cleared, developers will come,” Cunningham said. “No one wants to pay the demolition costs. We definitely have a need for senior housing. These properties could be good for senior housing, or a mixed-use development.” Purtell said the process of dealing with decaying structures starts when a code compliance officer sees a property which is not properly maintained, might be dangerous to the neighbors and could become a nuisance.

Once a property is declared a nuisance, which takes time, the process includes working with the owner to remedy the problems. Purtell said the city can move to demolish it. He works closely with the city attorney to make sure all rights are respected.

Police Sgt. Craig Neal, who is part of the department’s community policing effort and a task force member, said abandoned homes or commercial properties pose a danger to young people and can be a haven for gang members.
“Gang members will hide there, and do the crimes they are known to commit,” he said. “Kids may play there, and the places are hazardous. If you take it away, they can play somewhere else that’s safe.”

Neal said from the street, looks can be confusing. A home looks very nice from the street, but once in the backyard it is a different story. “There’s a huge open space” Neal said. “Kids see it, and they walk in. It’s not a safe place to play.”

Cunningham said removing blighted real estate motivates residents to take better care of their homes, fostering pride of ownership. He hopes the demolition program will lead to nicer and safer neighborhoods. “When your neighbor cuts the grass, you will cut the grass,” he said. “When you invest in your residence, your neighbors will invest in their homes.”

By Steve Sadin
Lake County News-Sun |

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