WASHINGTON PARK — The R.T.W. Veteran’s Center is scrambling to get repairs done after the city slapped it with 32 code violations.
On Dec. 1, a Cook County Circuit Court judge gave the veteran’s center at 5536 S. King Drive until May 17 to fix the code violations discovered by city inspectors in April.
“God gave us favor,” said Arnetha Gholston-Habeel, director of the center. “We couldn’t have gotten what they wanted done in a month or two.”
A flood of volunteers has come in since the veteran’s center put out the call for help in November, but it will still be a difficult road ahead for the organization that serves about 4,500 meals a month to veterans around Washington Park.
The stakes are high. If the veteran's center does not satisfy the judge in May, it could face receivership and have its building taken by the courts.
“R.T.W. is going to survive, we’re going to make it,” said Valerie Lilley, a former sergeant in the Marines who has come in to help organize repairs and raise money.
Lilley was among the more optimistic of the volunteers at the center last week, where paranoia was running high after the inspector’s calamitous visit because of the center’s close proximity to a potential site of the Barack Obama Presidential Library.
Many of the vets feared someone was pushing them out ahead of the library decision, but when the judge put off the next hearing until May it prompted some relief, as the final site of the library is expected to be chosen in the early spring.
“It’s still Chicago and anything can happen in Chicago,” Lilley said.
There are still a lot of clammy palms among the volunteers after they found out they would have to go to the city for a change in the zoning if the center is to keep operating.
The center needs a variance from the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals, something the vets' center had failed to get since opening in 2010, to keep using the three-story greystone as any type of community center and to get many of the permits necessary to satisfy the judge.
“We’re not going to get a variance, period, it’s not going to happen,” Gholston-Habeel predicted.
The architect who’s helped the veteran’s center in the past with plans and permits said it’s possible to get the zoning change necessary to get the building permits, but he said the center almost certainly won’t be able to get all the plans and permits approved by May.
“They’re already behind the eight ball with the variance,” said Ron Gardner of Group Design Associates.
He said the zoning change would require lawyers and appraisers the center doesn’t have, and still likely wouldn’t get in front of the Zoning Board of Appeals until April, leaving the center without time to get the required permits before it goes back to court.
He said in his view the only hope was to ask the court for more time.
“They might get the OK if they go to the court with an overall plan of what they need to do, but they need to show the court what they’re going to do and why they need more time,” Gardner said. “If they go back to court without a plan and without money, it’s not going to work.”
Peter Strazzabosco, a spokesman for the Zoning Board of Appeals, said the center would likely not be able to get on the board’s agenda until April.
Bill McCaffrey, a spokesman for the city’s law department, confirmed the veteran’s center would need to have building permits in hand at the May 17 hearing.
“They will have to present plans, permits and financing for the replacement of the rear porch,” McCaffrey said. “They don’t have to be in full compliance by the next court date.”
Gholston-Habeel said the center has essentially shut down, except for a few meal deliveries to housebound vets, and is seriously considering moving.
She said she’s visited a couple possible locations, but said she is stumped over how the center could afford to move with the building code violations still hanging over the current center.
Whether the center moves or not, the volunteers are still racing to save the current center, which would need to be fixed and sold to have enough money for a new location, according to Gholston-Habeel.
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