Building Resentment

January 18, 2008 8:28:07 PM PST
An order of Catholic nuns is being ridiculed for building a posh, high-rise on Chicago's Gold Coast.It's a project that, critics say, caters only to millionaires looking for tax-free real estate.

The 53-story Clare at Water Tower is named for a saint who founded an order of nuns known as the Poor Clares.

But the building rising on the Gold Coast isn't intended for the poor. It takes more than a half million dollars just to get in the door. And that, according to some, is just the beginning of the problem.

The Clare is for senior citizens, and many of the 253 units have already been sold for up to $1.5 million each.

It is billed as sophisticated and world class, offering "resort-style services and amenities" including gourmet dining, concierge and housekeeping, valet parking, along with an aquatic center, day spa and art gallery.

"The majority of the senior living options predominantly through the U.S. are usually suburban sites. There are not a lot of urban-downtown high rises throughout the U.S," said Steve Bardoczi of The Clare.

Because it is owned and operated by a non-profit religious organization, condo owners expect to live here tax free.

"The way they're marketing it is, they're saying basically to millionaires, 'move here and you won't have to pay property taxes,' said Joe Novak, Fairness Foundation.

Firebrand Chicago political operative Novak is behind an ad campaign aimed at discrediting The Clare. The controversial novak is a hired gun for right-wing Indiana insurance magnate J. Patrick Rooney and Rooney's Fairness Foundation.

"For a church organization to hide behind this tax scam, a tax scam for millionaires, you are denying needed revenue to schools, hospitals and public transportation," said Novak.

Novak has bought commercial time on ABC7 and other broadcast outlets targeting the Franciscan nuns high-rise project.

The Fairness Foundation is paying more than $100,000 for the spots.

The I-Team wanted to interview Sister Francis Clare Radke, chairman of the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago Service Corp., or the corporation's CEO, Steve Wuitschick, whose position last year paid nearly $600,000. But the nun's public relations firm declined.

In writing, the PR agency calls Novak's negative campaign "distasteful and misleading." The statement cites "more than 100 years of Franciscan faith-based healthcare, housing, community service and charity to people of all backgrounds, especially the poor and underserved."

The past five years, according to the Franciscan sisters, they've given nearly $38 million to charities supporting physical, financial, emotional and spiritual needs. But critics say even a saint wouldn't qualify for residency in her own building.

"They and the cardinal should be ashamed of this project," said Novak.

Church officials say Cardinal George has nothing to do with it. Even though the cardinal's second in command blessed the 2005 groundbreaking, a church spokesman says that wasn't unusual.

As for "issues concerning the construction of senior housing at the Clare," a statement contends those "are the responsibility of the Franciscan sisters of Chicago, and not that of the archbishop of Chicago."

"He could stop that project. He could say to the sisters 'this is not doing the mission, following the healing mission of Jesus Christ,'" said Novak.

Despite what they may believe, a free pass on property taxes for Clare residents is not a done deal. Illinois Revenue Department officials told the I-Team that the building will have to apply for a property tax exemption this year, that it's not automatic. State regulators are already reviewing whether the project should pay sales tax on construction materials.