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Thursday, May 27, 2004 05:12 am

Land grab

Rena Wilkey has lived in her home on North Third since 1956. Nearby dilapidated houses were recently acquired by Memorial Medical Center, but Wilkey says she has no plans to leave. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Photo by Todd Spivak

Memorial Medical Center has quietly acquired at least a dozen residential properties in the historic Enos Park and Oak Ridge neighborhoods since the end of February. The hospital apparently has plans to demolish many of the houses for more surface parking lots.

The hospital's real-estate activity can best be seen in the area north of Carpenter Street between Second and Third streets. Properties there, acquired by Memorial as recently as March 31, include abandoned houses with boarded-up doors, broken-out windows, and weeds more than a foot tall.

In early 2003, when some residents of the Enos Park neighborhood received eviction notices, Memorial said it was not buying properties in the area, which lies in the heart of the state-designated Illinois Medical District at Springfield.

Memorial's recent acquisitions have put many homeowners and neighborhood association leaders on edge.

"Nobody gives us information," says Bob Lanier, a member of the Oak Ridge Neighborhood Association and the Enos Park Neighborhood Improvement Association. "We wake up one morning and see a bulldozer or a backhoe out there."

Lanier and several other area residents railed against the recent land deals at last Thursday's Medical District Commission meeting. But neither residents nor commissioners said they knew who was behind the acquisitions.

"I had no idea," insisted Michael Boer, president of the Medical District Commission, when Illinois Times later informed him of Memorial's recent dealings. "We probably as a group need to be better aware."

In the last three months Memorial has bought a half-dozen homes in the 700 block of North Second Street, paying as much as $85,000 per property, according to transactions listed at the Sangamon County Supervisor of Assessments office.

During the same period, Memorial purchased five homes in the 700 block of North Third Street, paying anywhere from $34,000 to $70,000 per parcel, records show.

Memorial also bought several properties along East Union Street this year. These new acquisitions add to their already massive holdings in the area, which includes much of the land from First to Third streets, Carpenter to Calhoun streets.

In sum, records show Memorial owns roughly 150 parcels mostly in the area directly north of downtown.

"Generally it seems they don't have a use for anything unless they have the whole block, or half of it at least," says north end real-estate agent Linda Maier, who also serves as treasurer of the Enos Park association.

In February 2003, the State Journal-Register reported that Memorial was not buying properties in the Medical District area. The information was attributed to a Memorial representative, who was not identified by the newspaper. Just seven months later, county records show Memorial had bought property on North First and East Dodge streets.

Memorial declined phone interview requests for this article. Responding to questions via e-mail, Memorial spokesman Michael Leathers acknowledged plans to create additional parking to accommodate the $20 million clinic now being constructed directly east of the hospital.

Regarding recent acquisitions, he wrote, "We choose not to comment on the status or location of any specific property purchases involving Memorial."

Rena Wilkey moved into her home at 729 N. Third St. in 1956. She raised two daughters there and has often received praise for tending the best garden on the block.

These days, that doesn't say much. All the homes directly south of Wilkey's were recently bought by Memorial. They stand dilapidated and crumbling, with yards so overgrown that Wilkey calls them a public health hazard.

Wilkey, 70, says Memorial has twice called her about purchasing her home. She declined each time, and has even consulted an attorney about her rights to stay.

"I'm not going anywhere," she says.

Wilkey is not the only one. Several homeowners in the block bounded by Second, Dodge, Third, and Union streets, report having received offers from Memorial via phone and mail, but do not wish to sell their land.

Other property owners, like Kathy Tokich of 200 W. Calhoun St., say they have heard rumors that Memorial sometimes pays inflated prices. She can't wait to get an offer.

"[Memorial's] coming this way, anyway," says Tokich. "This way we won't have to paint the house."

In time, the Medical District Commission will have the authority to seize properties via eminent domain lawsuits in the designated area bounded by North Grand and Madison avenues, Walnut and Eleventh streets.

At each of the commission's meetings, President Boer has tried to allay public concerns that the process for developing new medical centers in the area will rely on community input.

But that could be years away. Though the medical district was approved in January 2003, the commission has yet to secure any funding toward designing a master development plan for the project.

Boer hopes to receive state funding within the next six to eight weeks that would cover the estimated $150,000 price tag needed to hire consultants for the plan.

But he admits the state's budget crisis may nix that hope, leaving the commission empty-handed.

The state legislation that established the medical district mandated the formation of an advisory council to be appointed by the mayor and comprised solely of neighborhood association members, says Boer.

But Mayor Tim Davlin still has not named any of those community representatives.

Some area homeowners last week asked the Medical District Commission to call for an end to land sales in the Medical District until the master plan is finalized. But Boer responded that his hands were tied.

"We effectively have no powers," says Boer. "No one has a say over what an individual does with his or her property. That's America."

Boer also denied claims from some concerned residents that the commission is purposely dragging its feet to eliminate public input in the area's development.

Regardless, area homeowners like Bob Lanier, who supports the formation of a Medical District as a way of boosting the local economy, says developers must be held accountable immediately.

"[Memorial] should put the interest of the Medical District over their own private interests."

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