St. Boniface saved: Michael Skoulsky's Stas Development ends 17-year battle


St. Boniface complex as photographed by Gladys Anselmo in about 1998 from Eckhart Park

Behind closed doors in a crowded room, with 30 "moving parts" to be agreed upon and a 5 p.m. deadline, Michael Skoulsky, Stas Development, Inc., came to an agreement with Phil Moeller's Carefree Development, LLC. on the purchase of St. Boniface Church property, Noble and Chestnut. The deal closed at 4:48 p.m. on Friday, according to Skoulsky's attorney Andrew Cunniff, Galarnyk Associates, LTD. 

In addition to the seller and buyer and their respective legal counsel, others around the table included David Ruttenberg, Marc Realty Capital, Skoulsky's equity partner in the project and both Michael Scott Carter, Executive Director, and Rory Dean Smith, Chief Operations Officer, of the not-for-profit Chicago Academy of Music (CAM). The Academy will have a building on the site in which there will performances, music lessons, music education and recording facilities as well as student and faculty housing. 

Representing the City were Eleanor Gorski, Deputy Commissioner of Planning, Design and Historic Preservation, City of Chicago Department of Planning and Development, and Lisa Misher, Senior Counsel at City of Chicago. Both women are receiving praises from everyone including Lisa Dichiera, Director of Advocacy of Landmarks Illinois (LI) who was not present at the meeting, but said, "Without these two women, it would never have happened." 


Rory Smith, Kahil El'Zabar (CAM's Exec. Creative Director), Michael Scott Carter, Jon Kulpit, Michael Skoulsky, Bob Zwolinski and Kevin Stawiarski

The Project
Deemed to be structurally sound last year when the City reached out to LI to have a structural assessment of the building. (The  assessment was done pro bono by Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc.) The site proposal is to have 15 dwelling units as part of the church structure and a 24-unit residential building east of the church. On the north side will be the Chicago Academy of Music school building. 


Celebrants had conversations with each other

Reactions to the Victory
In celebration of the accomplished deal, many people, from various parts of the City, gathered at the Church Friday night to celebrate. With glasses repeatedly raised, there were a lot of toasts as well as hugs and shouted exclamations like WOW, yahoo, etc. Everyone was expressing pure joy for victory after a long battle.

First on the scene was Bob Zwolinski.

"I feel like anything in life is possible," said Zwolinski with his face looking somewhat ethereal as he looked up to the sky. It takes one common goal for people to work together to get it done. If you work together as a community anything is possible. Talk together and keep open channels."


Andrew Cunniff, Zwolinski, Ward Miller and Skoulsky

"We did it! It does seem a bit surreal," said Skoulsky, looking cool and collected as though he had just come in from a drive in the country rather than grueling hours of negotiations. "I've learned that to be successful you have to have a positive attitude. 

"Once we started working on this, I felt that it had to be done."

Kevin Stawiarski and Jonathan Kulpit, Neighbors of St. Boniface (NOSB) praised 26th Ward Alderman Walter Burnett. 

"He had our backs and that is why we could put the groups together. He kept asking what the neighbors had to say," said Kulpit.

"He came over to my house to find out what I thought about it," said Stawiarski, who still seemed to be shocked by Burnett's actions.

After everything that he has experienced since 1999 Stawiarski says, "I'm cautiously optimistic!." According to neighbors, he is really the steady hand that pushed this project forward,

In praise of NOSB, Zowlinski said, "They are St. Boniface's 1985 Chicago Bears!"

"This is so beautiful, I had tears in my eyes as I rounded the corner here tonight," said Ward Miller, Preservation Chicago. "This morning in another meeting I was told that there was no safety net for this project. If the deal didn't close today, it was all over."


Skoulsky, Claudia Sainsot, Michael Vasilko and Cunniff

Michael Scott Carter said, "I'm ecstatic that these guys have done an incredible job and marshaled in the opportunity that inspires the community and the future where culture becomes the focus and the advancement of Chicago is based on our humanity."

Neighbor Claudia Sainsot, an attorney and NOSB board member, said, "It is fabulous to experience democracy! It is so refreshing that voices matter."


Katara Jackson

Katara Jackson, a resident at Noble and Milwaukee for all of her 18 years, walked up to the group celebrating in the street and asked what was going on. When she was told, she said, "This is exciting and amazing. Without it, it would really be empty. I walk passed it every day and wonder if anyone will ever do anything about this church. Tearing it down, for me, was just not an option.

"Glad they are making something of this. A music program would be good to keep kids off the street," said Jackson who is currently working but will be going to Malcolm X to study physical therapy.

When asked about what is next, Skoulsky said, "Blue prints. Normally that is the first step in a development, but in this case, it wasn't." (We both laughed, because nothing regarding this project has been "normal.") 

Miller believes that there should be a big community celebration that involves music and gathering of all the people who have been and want to be involved in this spectacular accomplishment.

While Stas Development has won the battle, there are many more challenges that will need to be faced. That includes zoning and the City's evaluation of the property.

Skoulsky's cool, optimistic, diligent and focused demeanor will serve him well in the wake of the challenges he will continue to face as the project turns into a new complex that embraces residents, education, culture and community.


With the church in the background some of the celebrants gather for a "formal" photo with the June 1, 1999, rally flyer

Time Lines and Other Key Players
With the 1340 W. Chestnut St. convent torn down in 1994, the site's pivotal year for the St. Boniface project was 1999. 

In March of that year, Landmarks Illinois (a.k.a. Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois) put the church and school on their "Top Ten Most Endangered" list. Then in April a neighbor to St. Boniface, Kevin Stawiarski, learned from the East Village Association that the  Archdiocese of Chicago was planning to demolish the church, school and all other structures on the property. 

A June 1, 1999, rally organized by Stawiarski, the originator of  Neighbors of St. Boniface (NOSB), began engaging more community people such as Jim Boccarossa, Mike Dotson, Jonathan Kulpit and Kathy Thalmann (all who are NOSB board members). 

They began following a chapter from the successful play book established by Gladys and Rich Anselmo of the East Village Association (EVA). Their 1996 systematic organizing work resulted in saving the Chicago Ave. Goldblatt's building from being a 110-space parking lot for produce chain Delray Farms, instead of being the home to the West Town Public Library and other City of Chicago offices.

"They laid the ground work for how to assure a community is successful in redeveloping their neighborhood," says Jonathan Fine who was EVA Vice President then and is former Executive Director of Preservation Chicago. Having seen and been a community leader, he knows the importance of people investing their time and energy into their community. 

Burnett stepped into the St. Boniface saga in 2002 and got NOSB, The Archdiocese of Chicago, preservationists and several city departments, including the Department of Planning and Development, at a meeting in City Hall. 

However, as NOSB tried to push things forward, there were more demolitions. A second convent building at 1342 W. Chestnut and the school at 1346 W. Chestnut St., were razed in 2003. The rectory at 921 N. Noble St, was turned to rubble in 2011. However, the talk about the church was for rehabbing it. The Archdiocese, in fact, invited four firms to submit designs for the site. That resulted in designs but never went beyond that.

A series of development possibilities emerged that included high rises and restoration by a church. Then in December 2008 the Archdiocese of Chicago submitted a request for the City to demolish the church.

The spotlight was back on St. Boniface. Preservation Chicago made it one of their  "Seven Most Endangered Buildings" list in January 2009.

In April 2010 there was a land swap between the City and the Archdiocese, putting the property in the hands of the City.  In turn the  City sold the $4,950,000 valued property to St. Boniface Senior Living Foundation (a sponsor) for a $1 with the understanding that they would convey the property to a developer who was to begin Phase 1 of a multi-phase reuse project. Institutional Project Management, LLC. was the designated developer.

For six years, there was plan after plan with the wrecking ball hovering over head.

While EVA was involved in saving St. Boniface years ago and had been supportive of NOSB, it was at EVA's 2016 April meeting when the final push took hold. 

Kulpit asked EVA for a letter of support to save the church and Bob Zwolinski teamed up with Preservation Chicago's Miller.


Miller and Zwolinski

At the May meeting, Zwolinski reported that there were efforts to stave off the demolition by putting together another group to buy the church. 

Architect Michael Vasilko, who had been working on plans for 10 years, not connected to the owners, to save the church was added to Zwolinski and Miller's team. 

They pulled out all stops to try to find entities that could come up with the right type of usages, have the right physical scale, could get the project funded and had concerns for the greater community. 


Alyssa Bobak and rescued friend Odin stand at the corner where Skoulsky and Odin often stood imagining developing the St. Boniface site

They went after charter schools, developers and others to pull together the right combination of  "players.

The demolition clock started to run down when Zwolinski said to his good friend Skoulsky, "Want to develop a church?"

Skoulsky was amazed. He had been walking by that church for three years with his dog Odin thinking how great it would be to be able to develop it!

As a result of the Sept. 23 it shall be. Though no doubt, there will be more of this story to tell. We all look forward to the completion of this community driven solution to honor the past while adapting to future needs.

For a detailed account of all of the actions since 1983, go to St. Boniface Time Line.



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