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By Laurie Cohen and Todd Lighty

RISMEDIA, June 5, 2007-(Chicago Tribune)-Four years ago, a gusty wind raced? through a luxury housing development near the Chicago River, tearing apart a two-story home in the later stages of construction.

The debris was quickly swept away, and the project-the largest development of single family homes in the city-went on to win awards and attract more than 100 buyers, some of whom paid more than $1 million for their homes.

But the 2003 collapse eventually led to the conclusion that the buildings had structural problems so severe that they needed to be supported by towering steel braces between the homes-an unprecedented engineering fix designed to prevent their wood frames from twisting in strong winds.

Many residents are wondering why the city allowed such flawed houses to be built in the first place and why the defects did not come to light sooner.

The answer, pieced together through interviews, court records and city documents obtained by the Tribune through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, involves the familiar Chicago mix of political clout and lax oversight.

The homes are in Mayor Richard Daley’s native Bridgeport neighborhood in the 11th Ward and their creation feature a cast of political heavy-hitters with close ties to the mayor. Daley himself took an unusual interest, at one point asking his aides for a list of those buying homes in the project, known as Bridgeport Village.

The project was monitored by an understaffed Buildings Department that paid little attention to single-family home construction, especially when it came to making sure a politically connected development complied with the building code.

When the city quietly approved the plan for 15-foot-high braces-without notifying homeowners-officials made it clear that the decision was aimed at shielding the mayor from embarrassment.

“We are concerned above all with the safety of all the citizens and … also to protect our mayor,” John Agrela, then chairman of the Building Board of Appeals, said at an April 4, 2006, meeting. “I mean, we don’t want anything to look bad in the eyes of the public that, you know, these things are done.”

The Daley administration already had been hit by a series of building-related scandals, including the collapse of a Lincoln Park porch that killed 13 people and the hiring of a teenage building inspector whose father was a top union official. Since late last year, 10 city employees have been charged with taking bribes or lying in connection with building permits and inspections.

City officials said that the houses are in no danger of falling down and that the braces were designed for improbably high wind speeds. Officials said homeowners were not immediately notified of the need for braces because they are common elements of the development, which individual residents do not own.

Residents aren’t satisfied with the way the city handled the project.

“The city missed everything that was going up,” said Bridgeport Village resident J.B. Bruederle, a veterinarian. “They just dropped the ball.”

Others worry that bad publicity could hurt the value of their homes.

But the publicity has come anyway. The development filed for bankruptcy in March, claiming it needed protection from creditors while it sells nearby industrial property so it can raise money to repair the homes. One of the partners, Thomas Snitzer, alleged in a federal lawsuit that the city forced him out as manager because he refused to give favors and kickbacks to 11th Ward operatives.

Clout at ground floor

Early on, the development appeared to be stalled.

The partners were no lightweights: John Kinsella, a longtime Daley supporter and former chief executive of the advertising agency Leo Burnett; Sidney Diamond, a novelty candymaker; and Snitzer, a real estate developer.

Still, they didn’t have the City Hall access they needed. Ald. James Balcer (11th), whose blessing was required for the project to proceed, had refused for a year to even discuss it, according to Snitzer’s suit.

Court documents now show that the project’s dealings with the city began to click after Kinsella brought in as an adviser Timothy Degnan, an 11th Warder and former top aide to the mayor, to steer the project through official channels. Degnan’s business associate, Thomas DiPiazza, was hired as a consultant, to be paid up to $1.3 million.

According to Snitzer’s suit, Degnan, DiPiazza and Kinsella attended a 1999 meeting at City Hall to talk about plans for the project with Balcer, Daley and the mayor’s brother John, the 11th Ward committeeman and Cook County commissioner.

At the meeting, the mayor pledged to have the official in charge of the sale of city-owned land expedite the project, the suit says.

Jodi Kawada, a spokeswoman for Daley, said the city had no record of the meeting, but added that “the mayor frequently attends planning meetings that cover a range of developments all over the city.”

Kawada said the mayor did not ask that the sale of the land be expedited.

City records show that the mayor’s office kept tabs on the project’s progress. In May 2001, Sheila O’Grady, then Daley’s chief of staff, asked the building commissioner for an update on the status of the development’s permits.

Many of the proposed homes were as narrow as Chicago’s squat brick bungalows-20 feet wide-but were taller and had wood frames. Their first floors had large windows and open floor plans.

Despite the updated design, the city did not make sure the architectural plans for the houses met structural engineering requirements, including the ability to endure winds without swaying. Unlike many suburban communities, Chicago does not typically do structural reviews for single-family homes. The city says it puts its resources elsewhere because homes have a relatively small risk of structural failure. Since 2004, city officials said, plans for big housing developments get structural reviews from outside architectural and engineering firms.

As building got under way, problems began cropping up. Inspectors placed stop-work orders on 70 homes that did not have building permits. But for reasons that are unclear, the city allowed the work to continue.

Homes sold rapidly, and the project was hailed as a symbol of rejuvenation for blue-collar Bridgeport. It attracted buyers from across the city, including doctors, lawyers, former Chicago Bear Chris Zorich and former Daley aide Victor Reyes.

But problems kept coming.

Storm damage

On May 11, 2003, a storm blew over one partially built house and caused another to shift on its foundation. Anthony Splendoria, a subcontractor who left the project in a dispute over payment to his Brickcraft masonry company, noticed the damage and hired a structural engineering firm to review plans for the homes.

Stuart K. Jacobson & Associates concluded that the design did not have enough rigid walls to withstand the wind.

“We thought it was a serious issue,” Jacobson said in an interview. “We believed the buildings to be structurally deficient as shown on the drawings.”

The engineers found that wind pressure could cause “racking,” a gradual twisting of the frame that can cause cracks in the masonry and drywall and dislodge windows and doors, leading to chronic leaks. In extreme cases, the buildings might collapse.

After receiving the report, Splendoria and his brother Robert say they became concerned about the safety of the houses.

“The houses were safe as long as it was not too windy,” Robert Splendoria said.

For the next two years, the Splendorias crusaded to get the developers to respond to Jacobson’s report, but their efforts went nowhere.

Snitzer hired engineers who vouched for the structural soundness of the homes, and the project architect said changes in the field during construction had strengthened the walls.

After years of allowing construction to proceed despite code violations, City Hall finally brought work on the project to a halt in 2005. To make sure that all work really stopped, the mayor told his aides to post an inspector at the project all day and bill the developer, city records show.

The reasons for the city’s long-delayed move are in dispute. City officials said they halted work and helped persuade a state court judge to remove Snitzer as manager because they were getting complaints from homeowners and Snitzer was not moving quickly enough to fix problems.

Snitzer, in his federal suit, claims the city cracked down after he refused DiPiazza’s demands to pay him more money and to stop acquiring real estate that 11th Ward power brokers had intended for others.

But the city still hadn’t figured out that there were structural problems.

On May 9, 2005, the Splendorias met with then Building Commissioner Stan Kaderbek, giving him the Jacobson report and photos of the wind-damaged homes. Kaderbek, a structural engineer, immediately called in consultants at Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates to review the plans for Bridgeport Village.

The consultants agreed with Jacobson that the homes did not meet code. The firm recommended in May 2005 that the homes be reinforced within a year. But Kaderbek did not mention structural stability when he met with Bridgeport Village homeowners to announce that the new management team, led by Kinsella, had signed an agreement with the city to fix all problems. Instead, he said there were “serviceability issues” with some of the houses that could be fixed with a “low cost, minimal impact solution,” according to a copy of his statement.

Kaderbek, who is a defendant in Snitzer’s suit, declined to comment, but his lawyer, Mark Rotert, said in an e-mail that Kaderbek “acted properly in all respects.”

A quick fix

Ralph Schmidt, an engineer hired by the project at the city’s direction, came up with a plan to fix the buildings: braces installed between the homes, anchored in concrete and attached by steel bars at the second floor. Schmidt has told homeowners that such braces have not been used before but are similar to stone buttresses used centuries ago. Even with the braces, the plan did not meet the building code. It had to go before the Building Board of Appeals, a little-known agency that reviews requests to build in ways that don’t comply with city law. At the meeting in April 2006, the main spokesman for the project was lawyer Jack George, whose partner at the firm of Daley & George is the mayor’s brother Michael.

Approval was never in doubt, with Balcer and a handful of other city officials on hand to give support. The residents, who by that time had occupied 93 homes, were not told of the need for the braces until three weeks later.

Kinsella has since acknowledged that the braces are the cheapest solution and the only one he would pay for. So far only a handful have been installed.

Kinsella refers to the braces as “gates” because they are designed with ornamental gates at the bottom. In meetings with residents, Kinsella has acknowledged water leaks in many homes but said they were caused by construction flaws relating to windows and roofs and not by structural defects.

As part of the deal that allowed construction to continue, the developers had agreed to get certificates of occupancy for each home to show it met code. Usually such certificates are not required for single family homes in Chicago.

But Jose and Sandra Ruiz, who live in Bridgeport Village, were sold a larger home there in March 2006 even though it had no certificate of occupancy.

They have not moved in because of a series of problems: buckled floors, leaky windows and doors, an unconnected sewer line and a wood frame that was not attached to the concrete foundation. They blame the city for not alerting them to structural flaws.

“When we make an investment in something like this, we rely on the city to protect us,” Jose Ruiz said.

Source: Chicago Tribune