At a standing-room-only community meeting held Tuesday night to discuss the fate of an illegal building in Humboldt Park, Ald. Jessie Fuentes (26th) wasted little time getting to the point.
The partially constructed building will be demolished, Fuentes announced to cheers from the crowd.
The building, intended as an archive facility for the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture, has been at the center of controversy for more than a year, after neighbors saw it rising with no prior notice.
Objections ranged from aesthetics incompatible with the museum’s main building — housed in the park’s landmarked Receptory and Stable, which the museum leases from the Chicago Park District — to the underhanded manner in which the museum skirted Chicago’s permitting process.
Billy Ocasio, the museum’s president and CEO, apologized to the gathered crowd for “missteps we made” in failing to obtain proper permits and approvals for the facility.
His explanation: Because the archive received the go-ahead from state agencies, he assumed the project was cleared for construction.
“I’ve apologized,” Ocasio said, when pressed further. “I’m looking to move forward.”
It was a sentiment echoed by Park District General Superintendent and CEO Rosa Escareño.
Her team, Escareño said, had stepped in to help “right-course” the project envisioned by the museum. “I don’t want to go back, I want to go forward,” she said.
As a compromise, Fuentes said her office had identified vacant parcels on Division Street where the archive could be built — this time with publicly submitted renderings and all t’s crossed and i’s dotted, she promised.
“The museum deserves an archive center and it deserves one soon,” said Fuentes, who emphasized the importance of the museum’s mission of “showcasing the best of Puerto Rico from our island and our diaspora.”
To illustrate the urgency, Ocasio pointed to the 21 pieces the museum is currently housing from Puerto Rico’s Museo de Arte de Ponce, which is still struggling to recover from damage suffered in a 2020 earthquake.
“Thank you for proposing this viable alternative,” he said to Fuentes.
The solution also included the retention of the foundation of the illegal building, for possible use for future programming. In addition, Ocasio said he would pursue suggestions made by Preservation Chicago to top off the museum’s courtyard with a glass roof and remove the tent currently used as an event space.
“We’re here to help and we want to be your partner,” said Ward Miller, executive of Preservation Chicago, who declared himself “very pleased with the outcome” of Fuentes’ negotiation.
While many who arrived at the meeting angry and prepared for a fight left happy, tensions remained.
Longtime Humboldt Park resident Kurt Gippert, who launched a Change.org petition opposing the archive facility, told WTTW News the meeting had been poorly advertised within the community and said the compromise to keep the illegal building’s foundation had been made behind closed doors without community input.
“We should have had a clean slate,” said Gippert, who also felt Ocasio — the ward’s former alderman — had essentially been rewarded for bad behavior.
He will, Gippert said, be “keeping an ear to the rail line” throughout the demolition process (the timeline for which is yet to be determined).
“You’re never going to make everyone happy,” Ocasio said. “For those who weren’t in agreement, we listened. We tried to get a win-win. We learn and we move forward.”
Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Parks, expressed her gratitude that Fuentes had brought about a resolution “we can live with,” but added that support for the museum’s mission and the expectation that rules would be followed weren’t mutually exclusive.
For others, the dust-up over the illegal building was less about whether permits were or weren’t obtained and more about the neighborhood’s struggle to maintain its longstanding Puerto Rican heritage in the face of gentrification.
Jose Lopez, executive director of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, delivered fiery comments aimed at the building’s opponents. He asked where the same level of outrage was over new condo construction, to rousing applause.
Video: Jose Lopez, executive director of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, speaks during an Oct. 3, 2023, meeting on museum construction. (Patty Wetli / WTTW News)
The deep divisions within the community are likely to be an ongoing issue for the 32-year-old Fuentes, a former staffer at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center who was elected to office in March.
She delivered her own impassioned speech to close out Tuesday’s meeting, encouraging respect even when in disagreement.
“We’re all adults who love this community,” Fuentes said.
Video: Ald. Jessie Fuentes (26th) talks about gentrification during an Oct. 3, 2023, meeting in Humboldt Park. (Patty Wetli / WTTW News)