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Thursday, Sept. 15, 2011 11:18 am

All eyes on MacArthur

Neighborhood activists see hope

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Ward 7 Ald. Joe McMenamin

MacArthur Park is a microcosm for community activists throughout Springfield who want the city to do something about problem properties in their neighborhoods.

Steve Combs, president of the Enos Park Neighborhood Improvement Association and chairman of Inner City Older Neighborhoods (ICON), a consortium of community activists throughout the city, sent a congratulatory email to corporation counsel Mark Cullen when city building inspectors served a search warrant at MacArthur Park last month.

 “To me, it was like the SWAT teams were swooping in and going after the bad guys,” Combs says. “I thought, this is so symbolically meaningful to what to us is a bigger issue.”

 “End game” are buzz words for more than two dozen activists who gathered for an Aug. 29 ICON meeting. Ordinances exist aimed at eliminating problem properties, including a measure that allows the city to shutter housing if maintenance lags or police are repeatedly called out. But such drastic action is rare. More commonly, rotting properties languish.

“We have to send a message to landlords who neglect their property that enough’s enough,” Ward 6 Ald. Cory Jobe tells the group. “Sooner or later, it’s either put up or shut up time on this issue, and I think the putting up time is here.”

But Jobe also urges patience.

“We’ve got to give Mark (Cullen) and his leadership time,” Jobe says.

Cullen has drafted an ordinance aimed at forcing landlords to clean up problem properties. He said he expects to unveil the proposal by month’s end.

“It is going to hit on several fronts,” Cullen said. “It’s going to dramatically increase fines. It is going to focus on registration and a plan to take corrective actions. And it’s going to focus on enforcement.”

Even without new laws, the city is playing catch up. The building and zoning department at one point stopped referring cases to the city’s legal division for two months due to a lack of attorneys who could file legal action against property owners, Cullen said, and he is not sure how many cases are waiting for attention.

“There is a backlog we’re trying to get our hands around,” Cullen said. “We’ve been trying to document the numbers that we have, the cases that are in process. I’m not pressing the re-set button.”

Ward 7 Ald. Joe McMenamin, whose ward includes MacArthur Park and who swore out an affidavit used to obtain last month’s search warrant, said the city has gotten the attention of MacArthur Park’s owner. But he’s not ready to predict what the complex will look like in five years.

“It’s too early to judge,” McMenamin says. “It depends on how this enforcement action goes.”

Reach Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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