Englewood residents fight Norfolk Southern Railroad to keep land

September 17, 2013 (CHICAGO)

This has been cast as something of a David and Goliath struggle, though the argument is that this is a benevolent Goliath who would bring jobs and make empty property worth something again. But the Davids are Englewood residents who have lived in their homes for generations and regard the Goliath railroad as sneaky, and would rather fight than sell.

Front steps are still here, but they no longer lead to homes. In this section of Englewood, where houses once stood shoulder to shoulder, there are blocks where only one or two remain.

Syrnovia Lee, her sister Lisa and father have lived in this house for more than half a century. It's paid for. Their memories are here.

"See that's in front of the house. That's my brother right there," said Syrnovia Lee.

Though the neighborhood at 57th and Normal has changed, they have no desire to leave it.

"Then to move somewhere else, you don't know the neighbors, how they are either, and how the taxes are, whatever stuff like that," said Lisa Conley, Englewood resident.

The Norfolk Southern railroad has a huge intermodal freight yard north of Garfield, and five years ago it began buying properties directly to the south for an expanded yard. Converting this neighborhood to rail use would put dozens of empty lots back on the tax rolls, which means revenue for the city.

"I hear to the tune of $100 million. That's an estimate," said Ald. Willie Cochran, 20th Ward.

The local alderman supports the project. The city has agreed to sell 105 lots it owns to the railroad. The Norfolk Southern will soon hold title to most of the 83 acres it seeks to buy. Most, but not all.

"We worked hard. We own this property, and we're not gonna give it up because a for-profit multi-billion dollar entity wants to take over our property," said Prof. Steve Rogers, Harvard School of Business.

Steve Rogers grew up in Englewood. He owns the house that's been in his family for nearly 60 years. He is a professor at the Harvard School of Business, and he heads a coalition of 30 Englewood homeowners who are refusing to sell.

Their contention is that the Norfolk Southern seized on the 2008 real estate bust to quietly pick off properties at depressed market value and then, once its expansion plan was revealed, has used the cloud of condemnation to intimidate remaining homeowners into selling.

"I think that sort of arrogance combined with the reputation of Englewood is one where they thought they could treat people essentially as second-class citizens," said Prof. Rogers.

The railroad says that 90 percent of the property it's purchased has come from willing sellers who got what the Norfolk Southern contends are prices better than market value, plus relocation expenses.

"In the end the price that they paid covered the expense that that homeowner had and that homeowner left that building with no debt associated with that property," said Ald. Cochran.

The alderman says he wants nothing less than a fair deal for the homeowners, but that the railroad could resort to eminent domain if it chooses. To that possibility, the Harvard business professor says, bring it.

"Let's do it. And let a fair and impartial jury possibly make the decision about this and we think we're going to come out victorious," said Prof. Rogers.

The city has shown ABC7 letters from former Englewood residents who willingly relocated and are quite happy with the deals they got. Clearly, the feeling is not universal.

Action by the City Plan Commission this week may clear the way for finalizing the sale of those 105 city-owned properties in Englewood to the railroad next month. Norfolk Southern says it would use eminent domain only as a last resort for those refusing to sell.

But from the front porch of her home, Syrnovia Lee says: "We'll wait 'til the bitter end."

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