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Village of Niles, Illinois poised to purchase, demolish vacant Leaning Tower YMCA for new development

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NILES, Ill. (CBS) -- Four years after its membership facilities closed at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the vacant Leaning Tower YMCA in north suburban Niles is poised to be demolished in the near-term future.

The Village of Niles recently voted in favor of purchasing the old YMCA — named for the replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa that stands along Touhy Avenue in front of it, which the village already owns. Once the purchase is finalized, the YMCA will be marketed to developers, with the idea in mind for a mixed-use development anchored by the Leaning Tower of Pisa replica — known to all as the Leaning Tower of Niles.

The new development could offer everything from restaurants to live music.

The YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago closed the membership facilities at the Leaning Tower Y in May 2020 — along with the since-demolished Kroehler Family YMCA in Naperville and the also-now-vacant Lattof YMCA in Des Plaines. The single-room occupancy housing complex at the Leaning Tower Y remained open for about another year, but also went on to close 2021.

At a meeting on March 26, the Niles Village Board took a unanimous vote in favor of purchasing the YMCA property for $2.1 million.

The now-vacant Leaning Tower YMCA in Niles. Adam Harrington/CBS 2

Niles Mayor George Alpogianis said the village is amid a 60-day period of conducting due diligence before the sale closes, and everything is looking "very good." Once the sale is complete, the demolition of the old YMCA will be in the hands of the village, Alpogianis said.

The mayor said after a bid for contractors, the village hopes to have the demolition completed within the year — while also trying to market the site to developers.

Ideas for a new development for the YMCA site are currently in a "conceptual state," Alpogianis said.

"We want to open up a gathering area as well as for small concerts, things of that nature — especially with the Leaning Tower," Alpogianis said. "We want to bring in some sales tax dollars, put some small restaurants around it, coffee shops, things of that nature."

Several big-box stores are located nearby – with a Costco and a Target just to the east of the old YMCA. Alpogianis said the village would like to see people who have been out shopping at the big-box stores put their purchases in the car and then head to the new development for a late lunch or some live music.

Plans for a redevelopment of the Touhy Triangle — an area roughly bounded by Touhy Avenue, Lehigh Avenue, and Gross Point Road — date back several years, even before the YMCA closed. A 2015 master plan envisioned a "destination" environment for the retail and business community in Niles, with the Leaning Tower of Niles anchoring a "dynamic, pedestrian-oriented public space."

Alpogianis said some of the earlier development plans, which dated back to an earlier administration, were "in our opinion… always a little too grandiose." A proposal for a new stop on the Milwaukee District North Metra line to serve the area was also twice rejected by the rail agency, on the grounds that it was too quick a stop between Edgebrook to the south and Morton Grove to the north, Alpogianis said.

But as the YMCA has sat vacant, people from Niles and also from the nearby Chicago neighborhoods of Edgebrook and Sauganash have been asking about what's happening with the YMCA. With the pending purchase by the village, the plan is now positioned to move ahead.

A former community jewel

The YMCA, at 6300 W. Touhy Ave., opened in 1966. The YMCA also owned the Leaning Tower replica until the Village of Niles purchased it from the Y for $10 in 2015.

In a 1986 Chicago Tribune profile, the Leaning Tower Y was described as "easily among the top 10 [YMCAs] in the country" in membership numbers – with more than 20,000 year-round members altogether.

Generations of kids learned to swim in the YMCA's L-shaped west pool, with its shallow kids' section to the right, lap lanes to the left, and at one time, diving boards at the deep end — which measured 10 1/2-feet down. Kickboards and inner tubes reading "Donated by Cassidy Tire" were stacked in the corner. Floor-to-ceiling windows looked out onto the parking lot and the Leaning Tower replica in front.

 The Leaning Tower Y's 31st Annual Tower Triathlon, 2016. YMCA of Metro Chicago

Others swam laps in the colder east pool in an adjoining room, or played basketball in the gymnasium above. Downstairs on the lower level, kids would don a gi or dobok for judo or taekwondo classes in the mat room — a large, windowless space with the floor covered all in mats. Weight training and conditioning, dog obedience classes, and racquetball matches where each thwack of the ball against the wall reverberated up to the gallery above the courts might all be going on at the Y at the same time.

The Y also offered eight floors of hotel rooms and SRO housing — with a conference and party room called Skyline Room at its peak. A youngster celebrating a birthday in the Skyline Room would find himself amazed that the John Hancock Center and Willis Tower were visible in the distance.

Even the midcentury modern interior design was striking — with a floating staircase just to the left of the entry doors that was always roped off and didn't actually seem to go anywhere, turning 90 degrees over an empty rock and tile basin that a front desk staffer said had once been full of water and ornamental fish. The men's and boys' shower rooms each had their own distinctive and colorful patterns of tiles on the walls and floors, while the hotel levels — at least back in the early 90s — each had a rather flamboyant example of 70s-era carpeting patterns in the hallways, which a kid at the time might have compared to squashed bananas.

But in May 2020, the YMCA said it had been operating the Leaning Tower facility at a loss for several years due to an aging building and declining membership and program enrollment. The COVID-19 pandemic became the straw that broke the camel's back — with the Y saying it no longer had the ability to cover the losses.

Since the YMCA membership facilities closed, and the SRO shut down the following year, the YMCA has sat abandoned — and Alpogianis said it is now uninhabitable. Some windows are broken, and the heating and cooling system — which operated on water pressure — has been shut off since the Y closed, he said.

Meanwhile, videos have turned up on YouTube and TikTok showing young people trespassing inside the abandoned YMCA and exploring. The videos show graffiti on the walls of the gym, inside the dry west pool, and on other surfaces — and everything from children's playsets to audiovisual equipment, power tools, and even road signs left behind around the building.

Alpogianis said the village has demanded that the vacant building — which for now is still owned by the YMCA of Metro Chicago — be better secured.

Leaning Tower of Niles "beautifully restored"

While the YMCA will be demolished, its namesake Leaning Tower of Niles recently underwent a $1.2 million restoration project and is looking better than it has in many years. The bells at the apex of the tower were restored — and now ring for several minutes on the hour at 9 a.m., noon, 3 p.m., and 6 p.m. Railings for Americans with Disabilities Act compliance were also installed, Alpogianis said.

Alpogianis in particular touted the sight of the Leaning Tower of Niles at night — with brilliant assortments of lights. The village is now able to light up the tower in "just about any color or just about any combination of colors" — including red and green for Christmas; silver and blue for Chanukah; and red, white, and blue for patriotic holidays, among other schemes.

The Leaning Tower of Niles is much older than the YMCA. It was completed in 1934, after being commissioned by businessman Robert Ilg to conceal a water tower for a recreation park for employees of his Ilg Hot Air Electric Ventilating Company of Chicago.

Leaning Tower of Niles, 2003. HUM Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In 1960, Ilg's descendants handed over part of the park for construction of the YMCA, with part of the deal being that the YMCA would spend a minimum of $500 per year to keep up the tower and surrounding area until 2059. But the tower deteriorated over the years, with some suggesting by 2013 that it was in such poor shape that it should be torn down.

The village instead purchased the tower from the YMCA and began the restoration project — with hopes for that new development to grow around it. In the future, there are hopes to open the tower for tours to the top — but such tours are not available yet.

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