Little did a team of GGP attorneys know when they were assigned to assist the American Indian Center (AIC) at a Clinic in a Box® program that it would lead to a three-year pro bono relationship spanning a variety of corporate matters and culminating in a complex real estate deal to find a new home for AIC’s community center. Corporate Pro Bono asked the attorneys at GGP to share their remarkable experience in representing a pro bono client on a long-term engagement. Their story demonstrates the profound impact pro bono can have for both the client and volunteers.
AIC was founded in Chicago in 1953 and is one of the nation’s oldest and largest Native American community centers, serving 65,000 American Indians in the Chicago area. A few years after its founding, a member of the AIC community donated an old Masonic temple building located in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago to AIC. This building served as the social and cultural hub of the organization for the next 60 years. AIC’s treasured home was a community center bustling with social activities, educational programs and social services, as well as the place where children grew up, made best friends, and even met future spouses.
In July 2014, we participated in our first Clinic in a Box® program in Chicago organized by Corporate Pro Bono (CPBO), a global partnership project of Pro Bono Institute and the Association of Corporate Counsel. CPBO paired us and our then-colleague, Kristi Hayek, with AIC to conduct a legal audit. During the clinic, we identified several corporate and real estate matters for which AIC needed ongoing legal assistance, including the relocation of its long-standing community center facility. We decided that very day to retain AIC as a pro bono client because we developed an immediate connection with AIC’s representatives, and recognized that the three of us attorneys at the table had the precise expertise to assist the client. We assisted AIC with updating its by-laws and drafting certain corporate policies in the months immediately following the clinic. However, it was the real estate project that captivated our team for the better part of the next three years and drew in a number of pro bono partners.
By the time AIC participated in the clinic in 2014, its building was in need of significant capital improvements. At that point, there were two floors in the building cordoned off due to asbestos and the boilers failed, leaving the building with no heat during the cold Chicago winters. AIC could not afford the extensive repairs necessary to maintain the building and needed to relocate. Time was of the essence in helping AIC find a new location.
Early on, we brainstormed ideas for facilities that could accommodate AIC’s needs. This included everything from offices, to classrooms, to a large meeting space such as a gymnasium in order to host cultural events, such as pow wows. We anticipated that the new facility would likely require rezoning and enlisted the assistance of GGP’s local zoning and land use attorneys from Foley & Lardner.*† Collectively, we tapped into all of our resources to pinpoint possible facility locations, ranging from large vacant retail stores to closed or closing Chicago schools (which resulted in a meeting with the Deputy Mayor of Chicago). We also reached out to various consultants to identify creative ways to finance the new facility acquisition and renovation in addition to the anticipated proceeds from the sale of AIC’s existing facility. At the same time, we also put out feelers with our commercial broker contacts and both CBRE and Transwestern jumped at the opportunity to represent AIC. After both companies presented to the Board of Directors of AIC, Transwestern was ultimately selected for the project.
With the persistence of the Transwestern brokers, AIC found its new home a few miles away at the Albany Park Community Center. The Transwestern brokers also lined up a local residential developer to purchase AIC’s existing facility with plans to convert it to apartments. We aided AIC in closing the sale of AIC’s former facility to the residential developer in the fall of 2016 and negotiated a post-closing possession agreement that permitted AIC to remain in the building for approximately five additional months. During this time, with the assistance of Andrew Scott at Dykema Gossett,* AIC secured a special use permit for the new facility. We also helped AIC resolve some environmental issues resulting from the discovery of an old heating oil tank, which required closure in place.
In addition, we reached out to Jody Adler, Director of The Community Law Project, to help us find pro bono attorneys with local property tax expertise. Jody enlisted several tax attorneys at Jenner & Block*† to advise AIC with respect to preservation of its property tax exemption at the old facility post-closing and to assist in preparing and filing a petition for a property tax exemption at the new facility.
With GGP’s help, AIC finally closed on the purchase of its new facility on March 20, 2017. That same day, after a symbolic two-mile walk from their former facility in Uptown, the members of AIC opened the doors to their new community center and began to make it their own. Les Begay, AIC’s Board President, recently sent us an update describing the wide array of programs and activities that have taken place in the last year or are currently being offered at the community center:
- a traveling picture exhibit of 65 years of AIC Pow Wows
- Junior Olympic archery development
- Indigenous Science Days, which discuss indigenous contributions and culture in Chicago
- Robust Indigenous, a program where community members tell AIC stories
- Project Beacon, a grant from the DOJ for the education and prevention of human trafficking of Native women
- Writers Workshops, encouraging Native people to tell their stories
- Northwest Walking Museum, teaching the importance of plants and land uses by Native people
- Water at Risk, an event held in August 2017, where the Chairmen of the Standing Rock Sioux and Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin discussed water rights and land sovereignty of their Nations at both the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law and AIC’s community center facility.
The journey from introduction to AIC at a Clinic in a Box® program through closing the sale and purchase transactions for AIC’s community center was one that we will always remember. It was truly one of the highlights of our careers and we are so happy to have played a role in helping this wonderful Native American community find its new home.
Special thanks to Marjorie Zessar, Senior Associate General Counsel and Katie Donnelly, Senior Associate General Counsel, at GGP Inc., for their contributions to this post.
* denotes a Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge® signatory
† denotes a Law Firm Pro Bono Project® member