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Developer’s alley swipe blindsides neighborhood

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

‘They’re stealing our alley as we speak.”

That’s how William Lavicka opened our phone conversation Tuesday, and I’ll have to admit that got my attention right away.

You don’t hear about an alley being stolen every day of the week, not even in Chicago.

For a moment, I wondered how much a stolen alley might cost on Maxwell Street, then realized it probably didn’t work that way.

Lavicka’s friend, Carol Petersen, helped explain the details of the alleged theft.

On Tuesday morning, Petersen said, a construction crew breaking ground on a new commercial-residential development in the 1300 block of West Madison fenced off the alley that runs parallel to Madison along the north side of the street. The crew then started excavating the alley with the obvious intention of building on it.

“The alley has been there 100 years. I’ve used it for 35 years,” fumed Lavicka, a long-time rehabber in the area. “We’ve received no notification.”

Lavicka owns a rental property on Ada, while Petersen lives on Throop in a three-story home she bought in 1976. They assured me that all their neighbors were also up in arms about losing the alley.

Sure enough, within minutes after hanging up with them, I was receiving calls from others, including Barry Elrod, who rents a townhouse on Ada.

“I have a $140,000 car, and it’s going to be impossible to use my garage,” Elrod said.

That was enough to convince me to make a field trip to the work site, if only to get a peek at Elrod’s car.

Before going there, though, I spoke to Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th), who told me he was well aware of the situation because his office had been fielding calls since 9 a.m., when the digging of the alley produced what I can only imagine was the human equivalent of kicking over a hornet’s nest.

In response to the calls, Burnett said he’d sent his staff to the scene, as well as various city inspectors, and even called in the developer, Jason Vondracheck of Quest Realty Group, to explain what he was doing.

Burnett said Vondrachek produced documentation to prove he owns the alley in question, not the city, and that he is within his rights to build on it.

The alderman said he did some further checking of his own and came to the conclusion Vondrachek was correct.

“Legally, there’s nothing we can do about it,” Burnett said. “It was a privately owned alley.”

Burnett said he could have exerted some influence on the project if Vondrachek had sought a zoning change, but the developer had stayed within the existing zoning that allows him to construct a four-story building that will run the length of the block — with commercial space on the ground floor and condos upstairs. Vondrachek did not return my call Tuesday.

Not that many years ago, this was still Skid Row and nobody was worried about the ownership of a 10-foot strip of essentially worthless land alongside a long vacant lot, but with the resurgence of the Madison Street corridor between downtown and the United Center, every inch counts for developers trying to maximize their investment.

Because this was an H-shaped alley with another entrance at the north end of the block, Burnett said he believed residents still had adequate access to their garages.

Over at the alley, however, nobody was quite so sure about any of it.

“I’ve lived in Chicago most of my life. This smells,” said Chuck Doe, 61, (yes, that’s his real name) as we all stood in the cold afternoon sun and surveyed the scene.

The guys renting the ground-floor unit abutting the new development said there would be no way to get their cars in and out of their cramped parking slab, and I concluded they were probably correct.

Likewise, Elrod convinced me the only way to get his $140,000 car (a 12-cylinder Audi with a built-in fridge) out of the garage would be to back it down the length of the north-south alley. I hated to tell him he’s probably not going to get a lot of sympathy.

A lawyer stopped by and told the group they might have a valid legal claim to keeping the alley, but that they’d have to go to court to try to enforce it. They said they’d think about it.

Even if it’s not for sale on Maxwell Street, it’s hard to know what a stolen alley is worth.

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