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Kadner: Taxpayer-funded buildings rot away

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Updated: July 22, 2013 6:20PM



What strikes you immediately after entering the abandoned Howe Developmental Center and Tinley Park Mental Center complexes is a gut-wrenching sense of waste.

These once were giant state institutions that housed hundreds of people and employed thousands more.

Now high weeds grow on the once carefully manicured lawns, guard shacks look about to collapse and grass sprouts between the cracks in blacktopped roads connecting the adjacent campuses near 183rd Street and Harlem Avenue.

There are 50 structures, each 2,400 to 2,8000 square feet, on the 61 acre campus of Howe alone. They once provided residential housing for adults with developmental disabilities.

In addition, there is a 30,000-square-foot social center building, 5,600-square-foot administrative building, and 4,400-square-foot professional building.

And there’s a power plant and underground tunnels large enough for a man to stand upright in that once served to transfer food prepared in a kitchen building to the residents in their cafeteria.

They have served no useful purpose since Howe closed in 2010.

Couldn’t they have been used to house the homeless at one time?

Probably not.

It would have cost money to make the buildings habitable. Government employees to maintain them and provide security.

A few blocks away, on the property right next to Howe, is the former Tinley Park Mental Health Center complex closed only last year.

Twenty-one buildings sit on that 213-acre campus.

They include four buildings called “halls,” each more than 70,000 square feet; a 221,000-square-foot garage, a 13,500-square-foot water treatment plant, and more.

Back in 2005, even before the mental health campus was closed, more than 100 Louisiana residents who lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina were temporarily housed in a rotunda-like former hospital building there that had long been mothballed.

Now, all these buildings serve no useful purpose.

“They all have defects,” said Tinley Park Mayor Ed Zabrocki, whose village may someday purchase all the property.

“Those buildings are 50 to 60 years old and have asbestos in the tiles, asbestos insulation in the walls and ceilings and asbestos wrapped around the water pipes, from what I understand.

“There is even asbestos wrapped around those underground tunnels.

“It’s going to take a massive clean-up effort before that site is developed. The Environmental Protection Agency may eventually have to come in there.

“In addition, there are dump sites on the grounds. They’ve been dumping their waste back there for decades and some of it may be old medical waste as far as we know.”

These buildings, these campuses, these institutions were once considered state-of-the art in treating people with mental illnesses and birth defects.

But in the end, they were considered antiquated, outdated, even harmful to the people who were being served.

Most of those “clients” have been outsourced now, sent to group homes run by private institutions, which are supposed to be more humane and offer a greater hope of a normal life.

I don’t know if that’s true. But that’s what people tell me.

As for the land, the state has declared it “surplus.”

That sets the stage for the Illinois Department of Central Management Services to take over.

By law, the property must first be offered to all other state agencies, who have 60 days to respond.

After that, CMS seeks three independent appraisals on the land. The average of the three, plus the cost of the appraisals, sets the fair market value.

By law, the state can accept nothing less than fair market value for the land.

Once the fair market value is set, the property is offered at that price to the county where it is located (Cook County) and to all cities, villages and townships in the county, according to a spokeswoman for CMS.

At that time, they will have 60 days to respond.

If there are no takers, the state can offer the land for sale at a public auction.

While the land seems to be in a perfect location for development by Tinley Park, Zabrocki offered some words of caution.

“First of all, it is in Cook County, just across the border from Will County, which means property taxes are about twice as high for commercial developers,” Zabrocki said.

“Second, we already have a viable commercial strip at 191st Street in Harlem, just a mile away, and we wouldn’t want to do anything that would draw business away from that.”

Zabrocki said there’s always a concern that any new commercial development, rather than generating new tax revenue, will cannibalize consumer dollars already being spent in the village.

“Second, since the economic collapse, there’s just not as much development going on as there used to be. There are zero lenders right now.”

Zabrocki said he envisions the property, near a Metra station at 80th Avenue just south of 179th Street in Tinley Park, would probably be used primarily for residential housing.

“When we built the Metra station we envisioned that possibility in the future,” Zabrocki said,

“So it would probably be some sort of commuter development, plus some sort of senior citizen housing.”

But Zabocki emphasized that actual development of the land “might be 10 or 20 years down the road.”

In meeting with state officials, Zabrocki said, he urged them to include the cost of mitigation, such as environmental cleanup, in the land appraisals.

“Even if we don’t buy the land ourselves,” Zabrocki said, “we will ultimately control the land through zoning.”

As for now, the dozens of buildings are crumbling eyesores, a poignant reminder of taxpayer dollars that now sit rotting away.



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