Rev. Walter McCray, a lifelong West Sider who wants to build a research library for his publishing house. | Provided

The future of the proposed East Garfield Park mixed-use development that would include a research library is now in doubt due to Cook County Land Bank Authority (CCLBA) policies strictly regulating what the buyers can do with their land.

Rev. Walter Arthur McCray, who publishes Christian books that are tailored for Black people through his Black Light Fellowship publishing house, is looking to buy the Land Bank-owned lot at 115 S. Francisco Ave.

During the June 22 meeting of the Garfield Park Community Council’s Open Space and Land Use Committee, he said he planned to build a mixed-use development with publishing offices on the first floor and four apartments on the second and third floors. But in his application to the Land Bank, McCray left out his plans for a research library and only included plans to build a three-flat, because that’s what he and his wife could afford to do with the money they had on hand.

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In a recent interview, McCray said that he was under the impression that he was free to do what he wanted with the property once he bought it. However, Land Bank policies require the authority to set up restrictive covenants and other measures that restrict buyers to utilizing the property for the purposes they outlined in the application.

McCray said that he plans to spend the next three weeks trying to secure the financing to make the mixed-use project possible, but, if he can’t raise the money, he would build the three-flat he pitched to the land bank — without the research library.

During the June 22 meeting, McCray, a lifelong resident of East Garfield Park, said that he planned to use the first-floor commercial space for his publishing house, which currently operates out of the basement of his home. The prospective research library came up when several residents questioned McCray about how the development would benefit the community.

On July 10, McCray shared the Austin Weekly article covering the meeting with the Land Bank’s acquisition specialist he’s been working with. The specialist, who asked not to have her name on the record, replied asking whether he changed his plans.

In an email response sent July 12, McCray explained that the property is residential “per its bid-offering and status as awarded to McCray/BLF,” but also confirmed that he was applying for a zoning change to construct a mixed-use building and that he did mention a possible research library during the June 22 meeting.

The specialist responded that the article contradicts what McCray communicated with the land bank, sharing screenshots of emails where he described it as a three-flat. She also said he signed documents stating that the project would take 18 months, not the 36 months he mentioned during the Land Use Committee meeting.

The specialist said that, given the inconsistencies, she was planning to put a hold on the offer. She indicated that McCray could submit another offer that would more accurately reflect his plans and that detail how he’ll pay for them.

“While we want to work with a variety of developers and community members, it is important that the information that is presented is accurate, can be performed with available funds/capacity for a project, and does not misrepresent the Land Bank’s timeline expectations for any developer,” she wrote.

McCray responded by saying that the 36-month timetable was a mistake on his part, but that, when it came to the plans for the site, he said all along that, once he bought the land, he planned to apply for grants and loans that would allow him to build a mixed-use development.

He shared screenshots of emails asking the Land Bank for flexibility “to allow for appropriately adjusting or revising the project if the development garners additional community or financial support” and other emails showing that he mentioned a zoning change and potentially building a mixed-use development.

On July 14, McCray said that, following the discussion earlier that day, he was given some time to try to secure the financing for the mixed-use project, but he only has three weeks to raise about $1 million above the funds they’ve already committed to the project.

McCray and his wife told the Land Bank that they plan to use a $460,000 loan and $40,000 in their own savings to finance the three-flat. McCray said that he accepts the mixed-use project to cost around $1.5 million.

“I’m going to praise the Lord and we’re going to see and look to the Lord that we would have the funds in three weeks, that some lending institution or some granting institution would do what they do and participate,” he said.

“I feel a lot of good support. It has excited a number of people and I’m glad for it. It needs to happen and I believe it can happen, that’s God’s will, you know? So, we’re committed, my wife and I, we already put money on the line.”

In an emailed response, the specialist wrote that there “is a great possibility that we will get back on track with Mr. McCray and will work with him to support the [mixed-use project]. It sounds like an amazing project.”

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...