Robbins quarry developer’s previous plan for apartments went nowhere
By Casey Toner email@example.com February 2, 2014 9:40PM
The developer of the controversial limestone quarry and mine previously had a $5.5 million contract with Cook County to build affordable housing on this site in Robbins. The deal collapsed amid questions of land ownership and the developer's ability to build the site. | Casey Toner~Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 4, 2014 6:07AM
A controversial plan to create a limestone quarry and mine in Robbins is on hold amid growing doubt that it will be realized, and records show that the same developer’s plan for low-income housing in the village collapsed in 2011 because of financial concerns and project delays.
The quarry/mine project hinges on Robbins seizing a huge swath of private property through eminent domain and handing it over to the developer, ALM Resources.
But Cook County records show that the same developer, under a different company name, lost in 2011 a $5.5 million contract with the county to build affordable housing in Robbins due to questions about a similar eminent-domain plan and concerns about its ability to complete the project.
The $5.5 million was federal money funneled through the county for affordable housing.
“Three to 5 million dollars is a lot of money, and Robbins is a place that needs it,” said John Schneider, former deputy director of Cook County’s economic development bureau, who oversaw the housing project. “It needs a legitimate project that makes lives and living better for residents. Those dollars aren’t there for dreams or to enhance developers.”
ALM Resources, operated by west suburban developer Jim Louthen, signed a deal with Robbins in May that calls for a 61-acre quarry and a 169-acre underground mine tunneling under homes through the village’s north end. About 50 single-family homes would need to be demolished for the project.
A three-month investigation by Cook County sheriff’s police shows that the deal disproportionately favors ALM Resources, amid questions concerning the contract, transparency and the village’s legal representation.
The report on the sheriff’s police inquiry describes the redevelopment agreement as “questionable” because of former Mayor Irene Brodie’s deteriorating health when she signed the deal as well as the contract’s notarization by a former village trustee, Willie Carter, whose son owns properties in the project’s footprint.
The redevelopment stalled in November after Sheriff Tom Dart voiced serious doubts about it and SouthtownStar stories questioned how secretively it was planned and how much it would benefit the village.
Robbins Mayor Tyrone Ward has said the agreement must be renegotiated to better protect the village’s interests. A spokesman for ALM, Paul Stewart, has said the project’s status is uncertain and there has been no contact between ALM and village officials since November.
Chicago attorney Timothy Wright, assigned by U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-1st, to look out for Robbins’ interests on the redevelopment, told a group of concerned residents Thursday night that the sheriff’s police report indicates that the village’s deal with ALM was “atrocious” and should be scrapped.
“You can’t take a piece of crap, put some Band-Aids on it and call it a brand new gizmo,” Wright said.
As he had earlier last week, Stewart again declined to comment on the sheriff’s investigation, saying “I’m not in the business of questioning the statements that public officials and politicians make in the press.”
He also dismissed comparisons between the quarry/mine project and Louthen’s failed housing development, saying they are not directly related. Louthen could not be reached for comment.
In May 2010, Louthen’s Town Builder Studios proposed a 24-unit apartment building near 139th Street and Kedzie Avenue in Robbins, according to Cook County records. They indicated that Brodie, who was the mayor then, signed off on the project for the village in September 2010, and former Cook County planning and development director William Moore gave it his approval the following month.
But the building went nowhere, and the county ended the agreement in June 2011 in letters sent to the village and Town Builder Studios. The letters explain little about the county’s reason for canceling the contract, which ballooned from $1.7 million in May 2010 to $3.5 million four months later.
In an email to the SouthtownStar, a Cook County spokesman said the county comptroller’s office had no record of any of those funds actually going to Louthen or his companies.
Jane Hornstein, the current deputy director of the county development bureau, said the Robbins apartments were to be financed from $28 million in federal stimulus funds to the county that had to be spent by 2013. She said the county abandoned a few such projects, including the one in Robbins, because they did not proceed quickly enough.
Hornstein said Town Builder Studios had a “funny definition” when it came to its reimbursable expenses such as transportation costs and meals. She couldn’t explain why the Robbins project was approved initially, saying it occurred under former county board President Todd Stroger’s administration.
Schneider, who’s now the community development director in Franklin Park, recalled that the county had concerns about who owned the property where the apartments would go and whether Town Builder Studios could complete the building.
The project description indicated that the site for the apartments consisted of property that Town Builder Studios acquired, village land that Robbins would give it through a redevelopment agreement and private property the village would acquire through eminent domain and give to Town Builder.
In December 2010, Schneider wrote a letter to Louthen, stating that the county had several concerns, including that the “project’s scope keeps changing” and that Louthen’s company was behind in closing on land acquisition for the project.
“I really feel for Robbins and some of the communities that are really down,” he said. “You have people come in with great ideas, but they’re not the Wirtzes, they’re not the Wrigleys, they are not people that are capitalized enough.”
Louthen attempted to recoup some money two months after the county ended the redevelopment. He wrote a letter to the county community development director, asking for a reimbursement of $631,000 in expenses that Town Builder Studios had spent on the project. He did not get reimbursed.