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City says plans to buy land around Midway are for safety, not expansion

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Updated: December 3, 2011 8:17AM

Four parcels surrounding Midway Airport — including a breakfast hangout for police officers and a drug store that’s been a neighborhood fixture for decades — would be demolished to make way for enhanced “runway protection zones,” under an acquisition authorized Tuesday by a City Council committee.

Nearly six years after a Southwest Airlines jet overran a snowy runway into traffic, killing a six-year-old boy, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration got the go-ahead to acquire the properties to make the landlocked Southwest Side airport a little safer.

The four properties include: Central Drugs, 5600 W. 63rd St. with a single-room-occupancy building above; Continental Sales Co., 6323-53 S. Cicero; a neighborhood restaurant and bar at 5544 W. 55th ; and a Mobil station at 5448 W. 55th Street.

They will be demolished to make way for either “airport use” or green space. If the Emanuel administration and property owners cannot agree on a negotiated price, the city will use “eminent domain proceedings” to condemn the properties.

Negotiations with the four property owners were initiated, but never consummated prior to the $2.5 billion Midway privatization deal that collapsed for lack of financing.

City officials insist they are not acquiring the land for expansion of the neighborhood airport, but rather for safety.

Erin O’Donnell, the deputy aviation commissioner in charge of Midway, described the mixed-used drug store building as an “obstruction to the runway.”

“Its acquisition is quite critical — not only for runway protection zones, but also to improve the navigation approach path for aircraft to that runway,” she said.

Noting that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has changed “navigational procedures” since Midway opened in 1927, she said, “They encourage airports to acquire properties located within the runway protection zone.”

Ald. Marty Quinn (13th), whose ward includes Midway, called demolition of Central Drugs in particular a “safety concern.”

“It wasn’t too long ago [when] an airplane slipped off the runway. I can only imagine if that were to happen again and hit this building — what potentially could happen,” Quinn said, whose ward includes Midway.

“This is a great opportunity to take advantage of this [federal] money and make this a safer corner.”

Aviation Committee Chairman Mike Zalewski (23rd) noted that the greasy spoon is a cop hang-out.

“Are we gonna have grief counseling for the Police Department? They’re not gonna have anywhere to have breakfast,” Zalewski joked.

As a kid growing up on the Southwest Side, O’Donnell acknowledged that, “I bought my nickel candies from Central Drugs.” Although the building is architecturally distinctive, it is not a designated landmark, she said.

State legislation that authorized the failed Midway privatization deal would have prohibited a private operator from extending runways beyond the airport’s current boundaries, possibly leading to the demolition of homes and businesses.

Midway neighbors have been edgy about expansion since the fatal Southwest Airlines crash.

Bonds retired by Midway revenues will bankroll acquisition of the four parcels. Federal funding could reimburse the city for up to 75 percent of those costs, officials said.

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