Rating the Alderman: Communicating with Residents. Part I.

The alderman claims on her Web site that she “actively engages the business community and residents at every step of development and asks for their input.”

Let’s examine that claim. Let’s review how actively engaged residents were completely ignored by Debra and the business community with regard to the Republic Bank redevelopment project. I’ve complained about this in the past, but it’s a perfect illustration of how the system works in the 50th Ward.

In the Fall of 2011 Republic Bank invited nearby property owners to a meeting on the Bank’s proposed redevelopment of its block-long site on Devon between Fairfield and Washtenaw. The alderman was present; property owners and residents were unaware that she had already signed off on the bank’s plans.

On arrival, residents were told that the meeting was informational only; that all necessary approvals had been obtained; and that the following would occur:

  • most of the building on the Bank’s site would be demolished
  • a parking lot would be built from the middle of the block on Devon to Washtenaw on the east
  • a 24-hour ATM would be built on Fairfield directly across the alley from residential housing.
  • residents would lose four parking spaces on Fairfield to accommodate the ATM entry and exit
  • a portion of Fairfield, currently a northbound-only street, would become a two-way street for the benefit of ATM customers; this would occur after completion of the relevant portion of the Devon Avenue streetscape

Residents protested vigorously, but it was a done deal. No input from residents was needed, no changes considered. How would this affect property values for those properties closest to the Bank?  Silence. What about increases in noise, traffic, and garbage as well as the loss of parking spaces? Dismissed as irrelevant. Bank employees stayed on message: “Our customers don’t act that way.” And what about non-Bank customers? Bank reps were silent.

Demolishing the building from mid-block to Washtenaw would expose residents on Washtenaw and Fairfield not just to all the street noise of Devon Avenue, but would result in a loss of privacy as well, our porches, yards, and residences now clearly visible from Devon. As anybody who’s walked down the street is aware, vehicle noise alone is never-ending, with cars and trucks blasting music that can be heard for blocks in every direction constantly streaming down the street. The city’s noise ordinances are not enforced in the 50th Ward, and the existing building blocked a considerable amount of noise. Not to worry, we were told. We’ve incorporated landscaping, trees and bushes that will absorb the noise and protect your privacy.

The parking lot was a major issue. We were repeatedly told that there was nothing to worry about, “…it’s just a parking lot.” Noise? It’s just a parking lot. Garbage? It’s just a parking lot. What else might it be used for? It’s just a parking lot. Now the Bank owns another lot directly across the street from its building, but decided that it would be too expensive to run cable to that site for an ATM. It was decided that the property owners would bear the full costs of the Bank’s choices in lost property values.

Why did the Bank suddenly need an ATM? It was responding to requests from Devon merchants who wanted to be able to deposit their receipts after the bank closed. How many merchants? The bank admitted to only about a dozen. All this demolition and construction to suit a dozen customers? Doesn’t sound right. Silence. Some of the merchants attended, and sat sullenly listening to residents. Who did we think we were? The Bank agreed to e-mail copies of the plans.

What emerged a few months later, of course, was the news about the streetscape. The merchants and the Bank and the alderman knew it was coming, but the residents did not. The Bank acted before residents were fully informed. The alderman agreed to their plans. But there was even more to come.

Residents then endured months of demolition that began as early as 6:30 a.m., in violation of city law. Cement mixers pulled up under our windows at the same hour. Jackhammers were in use at 7 a.m. I personally witnessed workers throwing unused cement into the sewers on Fairfield. The demolition site was not properly secured at night, and more than once kids had to be ordered off the site by residents. The police were called but stopped responding after a few days.

And the Bank’s promises? The blueprints were never sent to any property owners. The landscaping at the ATM turned out to be day lilies, lovely flowers not known for their soundproofing qualities. Half a dozen spindly trees were planted around the perimeter of the parking lot, with a few more in planters inside the lot, and a few bushes are set here and there, inside and outside the lot. The Bank did not bother to contain its street-level landscaping, so the sidewalks and alley are muddy every time it rains. The gutter just south of the ATM does not run off into the landscaping around the side of the building but instead permits the run-off to flow directly onto the sidewalk on Fairfield. Fun when it gets cold enough to ice over.

The ATM’s signage and lighting are garish and intrusive. But the ATM sign has to be visible from Devon, and who cares about its impact on residents? Every morning as I look out my kitchen window I can see half-way to Talman; if I look out the living room window, I have a lovely view of the ATM sign.

There was no attempt to balance the interests of the residents and the interests of the business community on this project. Commercial development was permitted to alter the character of our residential area, and to negatively impact the property values on two blocks.

All was set in motion without a word to property owners or residents.

But there was much more to come.

Next Post: Everything But a Parking Lot

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