Local residents get testy at U. of C. dorm construction meeting

A rendering of the planned Woodlawn Residential and Dining Commons, westward on 61st Street. – Photo courtesy of the University of Chicago

Staff Writer

On Tuesday, June 12, representatives from the University of Chicago (U. of C.) and contractor Turner Construction held a public meeting about a new dorm, the Woodlawn Residential and Dining Commons, to be constructed north of 61st Street between Woodlawn and University avenues. It became heated as condominium association members from the University Center building, 1145–1161 E. 61st St., across the street aired grievances arising from previous U. of C. projects and questioned representatives about the current project’s plans and safeguards.

“The University thinks it’s very important to be good neighbors and to keep you informed about what is happening right next to you,” said Michael Ross, Project Manager of Capital Project Delivery at the U. of C., who announced that the screened, chain-length, six feet tall construction fence for the job would rise on Monday. He said there would be no construction traffic or parking on 61st Street, with traffic instead being designated on 60th from the Midway.

Turner Construction plans to have a construction trailer at the northwest corner of the site where future neighbor meetings will be held. The plan to hold them at 8 a.m. the first Thursday of the month was squashed by community opposition at the meeting, with Wendy Williams, executive director of Community Partnerships at U. of C.’s Office of Civic Engagement, saying they would be scheduled at a time that would work “for the masses.”

“We’re trying to be good neighbors and trying to make sure that the impact that our construction will have will be minimal on you guys,” said Ross.

“Our building is 100 years old. We’ve invested a lot of money in it,” said Melissa Meltzer Warehall of the University Center Condominium Association. Another member, Andrzej Mikolaj Gasienica, said previous construction along 61st Street had created noise, thrown off dust and shaken their building 12 hours a day, beginning at 6 a.m., causing cracks in their building’s exterior walls.

Campus South project map. – Photo courtesy of the University of Chicago

“I think it’s been very helpful that you guys have raised these issues, and we’re really trying to learn from it,” said Sarah Sheehan, city liaison at the Office of Civic Engagement. “I think the plan we’re putting in place, although we do not anticipate that you’re going to have any sort of issue like that, just as a safety measure we’re also putting in vibration monitors.” Ross said the monitoring would be done by an independent firm, that email updates about the project would be issued regularly and that the U. of C. and Turner Construction welcomed emailed questions from community members about the project.

Gasienica responded that the earlier construction of the Renee Granville-Grossman Residential Commons, 6031 S. Ellis Ave., had resulted in damage to their building regardless of U. of C. promises. In turn, Ross responded that, as no water pumps would be necessary at the Woodlawn Residential Commons, there would again be no deep excavation at its construction site. He said construction would run from 8 a.m. “typically” until about 5 p.m., sometimes until 8 p.m. Williams said that, if any weekend work was scheduled, nearby residents would be notified at least a week in advance.

Representatives could not confirm that no trees would be affected by the construction process at the meeting, but Williams said in an email Friday to those at the meeting that a dozen trees along the northern side of 61st Street and six along Woodlawn Avenue would be removed and replaced with 24 new trees.

“We don’t want replacement,” Warehall said at the meeting. She asked about the community members’ recourse should any construction vehicles or, later, students park on 61st Street. “Already, it’s almost impossible,” she said. “If I come home after 5, 6 o’clock in the evening, there’s no parking.”

“We didn’t open our windows for two years, there was so much dust coming from the construction site,” said Gasienica, who blamed Turner Construction for this and said he had lived at University Center for 16 years. “It was miserable.”

“I understand that you had a really bad experience,” said Williams. “This is a new team. This is a new project. We have heard your concerns since January. We care about your concerns, which is why we continue to have these meetings. So I am asking you to give us a chance. Give us a chance before you continue to …”

“What’s the dust abatement plan?” interrupted Warehall. Wood responded that Turner Construction would water the site and prevent dust with applied product. “As a construction company, that’s what we owe you,” he said before telling Warehall to email should any dust arise from the project. On Friday, Williams said that the fencing and screen built around the site’s perimeter would control for dust, as well.

“We are doing everything we possibly can to make sure the next time, if there is a next time we have a construction project, you all will be able to be sitting in this room saying really good things about how this project went,” said Williams. “So I’m just asking you to give us a chance.”

“We have no choice,” responded Warehall.

“The University is typically, I’m sorry, just not very responsive to the things that are expressed by the community,” said Celina Chatman Nelson, another member of the condominium association, who brought up University Center residents’ frequent, unheeded complaints about the fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi, 6105 S. University Ave., behind their building. “It’s difficult for us to trust that the University will have our interests in mind,” she said.

When Ross expressed the hope that the condominium residents would say that the U. of C. had “turned things around” in six months, Nelson said she did not think they could. “The dormitory is in the interest of the University not the community. That’s just a fact, so the best we can do is keep continuing to come and voice our concerns, and you can be responsive to those to the extent that you can. But the bottom line is the building is going up—which is not what we wanted, but it’s happening.”

When project representatives were asked if the Office of Civic Engagement had changed its process of community input since previous construction. Sheehan said the meeting itself was the change.

“We didn’t previously have logistics meetings when we talked specifically about construction and construction impacts, and that’s what we’re doing,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of things that have been put into place as a result of the conversation, not specifically our positions.”

Christina Angarola, the U. of C. Office of Civic Engagement’s Communications Director, reached out to the Herald on Wednesday with a statement:

“We’ve had several one-on-one and group meetings over the past year with the individuals who raised concerns during last night’s meeting in an effort to alleviate their concerns about the construction project’s impact on their quality of life. Their concerns have been taken into consideration and have informed the construction planning process.”

Angarola went on to reiterate points about dust mitigation, vibration monitoring, parking, monthly meeting, emailed construction updates, regular online notices and the lack of deep excavation at the Woodlawn Residential Commons site detailed by representatives at the meeting. She said the U. of C. “will share data from the vibration reports and, should any significant vibrations register, we will look into it immediately.”

On Friday, Williams said a stormwater sewer system, built to withstand a 100-year storm event, would be installed.

The Woodlawn Residential and Dining Commons is planned to open by the fall of 2020 and will house 1,200 students and resident staff.