Refinery expansion at BP threatens to consume historic homes in Marktown
By Michelle L. Quinn Post-Tribune correspondent February 6, 2013 11:16PM
Kim Rodriguez takes petitions around the Marktown section of East Chicago, Ind. Thursday January 31, 2013. Rodriguez, a lifelong resident of Marktown, is gathering signatures of neighbors opposed to BP's intent to buy the neighborhood for green space and parking. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 8, 2013 6:17AM
EAST CHICAGO — Precinct Committeewoman Kim Rodriguez has gone door-to-door for various issues through the years, but Thursday afternoon wasn’t a tour she wanted to make.
The 54-year-old, lifelong resident of the city’s historic Marktown neighborhood has lupus, so being out in the bitter cold gets rough for her quickly. But the idea that Rodriguez was asking her neighbors to sign a petition to keep oil giant BP Whiting Refinery from buying up their property to accommodate its $3.8 billion Canadian tar sand operation expansion was more sickening to her.
Rodriguez is now fighting for her home and the homes of approximately 550 other residents in the northern East Chicago community, and though the petition is a good place to start, she has a lot to learn about activism. That fact alone has kept her up nights for days.
“During our first meeting (held Jan. 23 at the Marktown Community Center), I was sick to my stomach because there’s so much I don’t know. But I will do whatever’s necessary to protect my home,” Rodriguez said. “I may go to jail doing it, but I will go down with the neighborhood if that’s what it comes to.”
News of BP’s plan reached residents of the once-highly modern and impressive, but now rundown neighborhood in the middle of January, when company officials acknowledged they’re looking at buying up Marktown properties for a green space project and possibly a parking lot. Prior to the announcement, rumors abounded that at least one of the residents had approached the company to sell his family land.
Rodriguez immediately sprang into action and put together a community meeting Jan. 23, where at least 65 Marktown residents as well as three current city council members attended. The next night, Rodriguez and several others attended a Redevelopment Commission meeting, where a new plan for the city’s north side was being discussed.
Rodriguez said she asked the commissioners about why a redevelopment plan created in 2008 that included restoring Marktown wasn’t implemented. She said she was told the body “would look into it.”
“That plan never went further, so how many plans are (they) going to put together before one goes through?” she said. “There used to be money for the 2008 plan.”
Whatever money was there was as desperately needed then as now. Many of the houses are crumbling and abandoned, the infrastructure all but neglected. Rodriguez gets that, but it isn’t the point.
“I raised my six sons here, some of who still live in the neighborhood,” she said. “It can’t be all bad because everyone knows everyone. The children who play in the street are always being watched; we’re known in ‘Ripley’s Believe It or Not’ for parking on the sidewalks and walking in the streets,” she said. “With such a close-knit community, we feel we could be an asset to BP.”
BP already buys some properties
BP’s strategy, on the other hand, has been to implement green space and parking along the West side of the refinery and has for the past 20 years, said Tom Keilman, director of government and public affairs for BP Whiting Refinery. So far, the company has acquired approximately 25 properties from willing sellers along the west side of Schrage Avenue, from 129th Street to 125th Street, as well as the former Globe Roofing site north of Indianapolis Boulevard, on the east side of Schrage Avenue. Additional property acquisition north of Indianapolis Boulevard to 121st Street along Schrage Avenue is also in the works.
With the expansion will come additional train traffic adjacent to Marktown and barge traffic along the Indiana Harbor Ship Canal, Keilman said. For that reason, the company believes the opportunity exists to work with homeowners, property owners and the city to relocate current homeowners to an area that isn’t surrounded by heavy industry. Along with BP, Marktown is surrounded by ArcelorMittal’s Harbor plant; East Chicago Tin, which is part of U.S. Steel Gary Works; and other industry.
Paul Myers, another lifelong resident and Marktown’s de facto historian, questioned whether the BP’s concern is warranted or not.
“When people talk about air quality here, for example, it’s better than it’s ever been before,” Myers said
Myers said BP approached him in November about selling his property, though he said the initial rumblings of BP wanting Marktown started six years ago. He was, and remains uneasy with the proposition.
“What, are we the colonies that they can step on?” Myers said, referring to BP’s British headquarters. “We’ve been here for 95 years. Why can’t we continue? We’re a historical landmark.
“Every architect in the country says we should be restored, so if I’m going to have plastic surgery, do you think I’m not going to want to have a say-so in how I’m going to look?”
History alone can’t save area
Keilman said property owners in both Whiting and Marktown have come to the company about selling their property, though company policy prohibited him from specifics. Nevertheless, he pointed out that no transactions have been made in Marktown — at least, not yet — and insisted that all property acquisition by BP is strictly a voluntary transaction with willing property sellers.
“BP is working with a licensed and reputable real estate broker to guide the property acquisition process,” Keilman said. “This is the same process BP and formerly Amoco followed for the last 20 years.”
Whatever land BP does get through voluntary sales, its historic landmark status could mean little. Tiffany Tolbert, director for the not-for-profit Indiana Landmarks’ northwest field office, said that being on the National Register, which Marktown has since 1975, doesn’t prevent anything in terms of tearing down a structure regardless of its landmark designation.
Several Marktown properties do have extra protections in the form of preservation easements or preservation covenants through the Indiana Landmarks, Tolbert said; in those instances, her organization can step in to protect them. Having properties put into preservation easements or covenants is a lengthy, costly process, however, and isn’t generally recommended for a single person to undertake.
The city also can adopt a preservation order and establish a board to govern and designate any changes made to an historic property. Tolbert said East Chicago has a preservation board, but it has to have the city’s support.
Marktown would also need the support of Mayor Anthony Copeland, but as of right now, Copeland hasn’t committed to either side since BP hasn’t made any sort of formal proposal to the city. Nor has he met with the residents on this particular issue but has plans to do so.
“I had seven members of the Marktown community approach me six months ago saying that it had been rumored that people who owned a large number of parcels where planning to approach BP about a sale. These were rumors, not actionable information, and it is not my policy to act upon rumor,” Copeland said. “It is my intent to keep improving East Chicago’s housing stock and maximize opportunities for homeownership for our residents.
“Anyone who is a resident of East Chicago, we want them to continue to being a resident. I do not have any plan to move anyone out of Marktown, nor is it my plan to interfere with individual property rights as long as the law and homeowners’ rights are respected.”
Copeland said he and Precinct Committeewoman Rodriguez are working to finalize a meeting between him and several Marktown residents in the next week or so.
For her part, Rodriguez welcomes the opportunity to defend her community.
“I went door-to-door for the mayor. I like him,” she said.”I had many talks with him one-on-one, and I know he’s had to make some hard choices that I may not always like, but I understand. But this choice, I don’t understand, and I hope we can appeal to him.”
If not, Rodriguez will bid adieu to the only home she and her family have ever known, and the city she loves.
“If I’m going to be forced to move, I’m not moving a mile up the road. I’m making it worth my while,” she said.