Copernicus Foundation sues to stop sale of former Jefferson Park firehouse, saying city never seriously considered its bid

Kelli Smith, Chicago Tribune
·4 min read

Standing in front of a former firehouse in Jefferson Park, representatives of the Copernicus Foundation said Thursday they are suing the city of Chicago after the nonprofit’s offer of $300,000 for the 114-year-old building was rejected in favor of a $1 bid from a developer.

“We really think we should be awarded the fair opportunity for the firehouse,” said Stephen Cioromski, a board member with the Polish cultural organization, which is seeking to halt the deal. “We just want this project to be done how it should be.”

The firehouse at 4841 N. Lipps Ave. was built in 1906 and has been appraised by the city at $208,000. Noted for its “elegant beaux arts detailing,” according to Preservation Chicago, the building has sat vacant since 2012. It is located near the foundation’s Copernicus Center.

In September, the city reached a tentative deal to sell the property to Ambrosia Homes Development, a Chicago-based company that hopes to open a brewery on the ground floor and add a third story to the stone and brick building. Apartments would be located on the top two floors.

The sale is pending approval by the City Council.

Robert Fioretti, a former alderman and an attorney for the Copernicus Foundation, said the nonprofit group found out “late in the game” about “the sideline deal” without being given an opportunity to submit its proposal. Officials with the group objected to the sale in July, momentarily halting the deal until the foundation could submit its own application, according to the lawsuit.

But the city’s Department of Housing declined the bid and moved forward on the sale to Ambrosia, stating in a letter that Copernicus never showed evidence of its “financial qualifications” or a “timetable for completion of the redevelopment.”

“Why under this day and age anybody would take a $1 bid for this building is beyond me,” Fioretti said.

But the president of Ambrosia, Tim Pomaville, said the sale involves much more than $1. The company has agreed to pay for environmental costs that could be at least $200,000. “It’s not really a $1 bid, first of all,” Pomaville said. “We have agreed to take on all of the environmental liability for this project as it fits right now.”

He estimated the entire cost of the project at about $2 million. “When they say that, ‘Oh, it’s a sweetheart deal’ or whatever it’s like, look, it’s a $2 million project,” Pomaville said. “It’s not just us taking this and tearing it down and making it into a parking lot.”

Copernicus officials said they are also willing to cover environmental costs in addition to the $300,000 buying price.

In its lawsuit, the foundation said the city obstructed its efforts to submit a bid and denied the foundation access to the firehouse to conduct any inspections.

The foundation said it wants to acquire the property to retain the architectural heritage of the Polish community in Jefferson Park. The lawsuit said the group has expressed interest in the firehouse over the last 20 years.

Similar to Ambrosia’s plans, the Copernicus Foundation hoped to open a brewpub on the first floor and four apartments on the second floor. But it is opposed to adding a third floor.

“Most of us are surprised at what we’ve seen in terms of our offer,” Fioretti said. “We’re offering $300,000 for the building, we will do the remediation at our own cost and we’re putting this property back on the tax codes. All three would benefit the citizens of the city of Chicago.”

While he declined to comment on the specifics of the lawsuit, Pomaville said it’s been “widely known” that Ambrosia was working on a project for the property, adding that it’s “surprising to us to have this kind of pushback at this point.”

“They have insinuated that there’s some kind of backroom deal or something,” he said. “It’s not that way at all. We just have the best plan. We’ve been very open on what our plan is, and the city has been working on it literally since 2016 or 2017."

“All of this is kind of silliness when they pretend like they’re a victim or they didn’t know about things,” Pomaville added. “It’s not true.”

Both the Copernicus Foundation and Ambrosia Homes have launched petitions and websites detailing their plans for the property.

A spokesperson for the city’s Law Department declined to comment.

kelsmith@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @KelliSmithNews

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