Chicago Property Auctions Move Online

Chicago Property Auctions Move Online

Carlos Ponce

By Steve LeSueur, Staff Writer

The city of Chicago has begun advertising the sale of its vacant lands and buildings on the Internet in a program that lets citizens preview properties put up for auction.

City officials believe their Web site providing color photographs and specifications of its properties is the first of its kind for a large city. Citizens can go online and review the properties that are for sale before submitting bids.

"Eventually we hope to be able to accept the sealed bids for the property over the Internet too," said Carlos Ponce, who oversaw the program while serving as commissioner of the city's Department of General Services. Ponce left that post in late November to become director of human resources for the city's school system.

Ponce said he hopes the Web site will draw more bidders to the property sales. "The people who usually participate in these sales have been in the real estate industry," he said. "This is a way to get more people investing in Chicago's future."

Chicago's real estate program is evidence that state and local governments are becoming more proficient in using the Internet, said Rishi Sood, director of the state and local government group at G2R Inc., a Mountain View, Calif., market research firm.

The Web site made its debut in July with a listing of 25 properties. Once in full swing, the city will swap in 25 new properties each quarter, ranging from empty lots to old firehouses. The city expects sales of $2 million a year for the property it advertises in its Digital Land Sales program.

The Digital Land Sales program is located on Chicago's home page at

The Department of General Services will continue to advertise the properties in newspapers, at libraries and elsewhere, because not everyone has access to the Internet, Ponce said. "But this is a way to broaden the participation in this program," he said.

The Web site also provides something the newspaper advertisements don't: photos of the properties. This allows people to see immediately which properties might be of interest.

Altogether the city has nearly 10,000 vacant lots and buildings, many obtained after the owners abandoned them or failed to pay taxes. Some, like an old fire station advertised for a minimum bid of $76,000, are properties the city no longer needs.

About 100 properties a year will be sold through the Digital Land Sales program, while the others will be sold or developed through other programs.

"Chicago may be the first city to create a Web site for its land sales, but other governments have gone to the Web and used it for specific purposes," Sood said. Many states are using Web sites to let citizens renew automobile and truck registrations online, for example, he said.

The move to the Web is part of the "third wave" in the development of information technology, Sood said. In the first wave, IT entered the work place through the mainframe computer, where the systems were maintained in the back office by information services staffs. The next wave saw information technology expanding to the entire office through client-server computing.

"The third wave puts IT over intranets and the Internet, taking the technology out of the office and putting the power in the hands of the citizens themselves," he said. Now citizens can go directly to government Web sites to pay taxes, obtain forms or get information about city properties for sale.

Chicago's online land sale program was developed in-house by the Strategic Applications Management Systems division, which Ponce called the "skunk works" in the General Services Department. The division's six-member staff was recruited from different bureaus within General Services.

"We were people who were pushing for new technology within the bureaus, who were looking to upgrade the hardware and develop new applications for the department. I think what we all had in common was a passion for using new technology," said Chris Grant, a member of the SAMS division.

The SAMS division also has helped design and implement other systems within the department. One of the most ambitious was a Computerized Facilities Maintenance Management System to streamline the maintenance work performed by General Services, such as fixing leaking pipes or repairing a roof. The new system eliminates 109 steps required to process work orders, and reduces the average time to close out an order from 31 days to just four.

Designed with the help of Chicago-based System Development Integration and implemented in April, the system is expected to save the city $1.34 million a year.

"I'd like to get to the point where our client departments can enter the work orders directly into our network and check on the status of the work orders themselves," Ponce said.

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