The fenced-in, one-acre property that starts running west on Madison from Washtenaw isn’t dissimilar to many vacant lots – thousands of them, even – that dot neighborhoods across the West Side and throughout the city. There’s a layer of grass, litter here and there, and a few kids occasionally tramping through, catching a short cut.
Francis Wisniewski paid a hair more than $1 million for the land, attracted to the block because of what he judged the simultaneous nadir in land values (three miles away, land is $250 a square foot, he said, but it’s about a tenth of that here) and, yes, that old real estate saw (location).
“Eventually, they’ll build here,” he said, gesturing toward the iconic western front of the Loop skyline, just three miles away.
And that presumed future development could make his Madison and Washtenaw lot a whole lot more valuable, along with the other parcels he owns in the neighborhood. Wisniewski estimated spending around $3 million on properties in the area; he started looking for land in East Garfield Park as far back as 2006.
But the development push won’t be happening now. It may be a minimum of two years before the market’s ready, Wisniewski said. Or more.
“I could put in a store, but the demand’s not there yet,” he said. “It’s just not ready.”
There are countervailing economic forces at play in the neighborhood, in Wisniewski’s estimation.
On the one hand, Johnny’s Ice House is close to completing a new facility in the 2500 block of W. Madison and Pete’s Fresh Market plans a store at Madison and Western. The latter project is one that speeds up the timetable for new projects. But, on the other hand, Wisniewski mentioned recent foreclosures that have hit a developer in the 2400 block of W. Western and the city’s still-high unemployment rate.
If the land isn’t ready for new rentals or condos, for a retail strip mall or small-busness places, Wisniewski thinks now may indeed be the time for seed beds of tomatoes, tidy rows of leafy greens and peppers sprouting off their branches.
To that end, on March 19, Wisniewski posted a brief but to to-the-point notice to an online list maintained by a Chicago network called Advocates for Urban Agriculture with an unusual subject line.
It read, “free use of vacant land in East Garfield Park.”
The pitch was simple: “anyone,” but charitable groups in particular, the message said, was welcome to lease the land for free from Wisniewski, to develop an urban agriculture or gardening project, something, he thought, that would create a source for fresh produce in an area long considered a food desert, largely bereft of easy access to healthier food options.
He’d provide no further financial assistance, but a garden or small farm might offer a productive use for otherwise empty land during uncertain economic times
“To me it was the quickest way to improve the property without ruining my chance to develop it,” he said. “You can farm it for 10 years without requiring any building.”
Ken Dunn, a longtime Chicago environmental activist and urban agriculture advocate, has long made the case for growing food to feed local communities. He’s focused on what he estimates were 20,000 vacant acres in Chicago, most on the city’s West and South Sides.
City Farm, which Dunn founded, raises crops for high-end restaurants on a vacant swath on Clybourn, north of Division Street.
Dunn recalled telling Wisniewski’s lawyer that most of his parcels were too small for a commercial farming operation. But a cluster of families or groups might well use, say, the one-acre plot at Madison and Washtenaw for garden plots.
Seeing more vacant acres come into production would make Chicago a “more sustainable city,” he said.