More Storage Coming

Storage facilities are a growth industry. The Village of Skokie has now recommended that an 812-unit facility be built in the 3200 block of Touhy.  Let’s see: 1,200 units under construction at Devon and Ridge, an unknown number at Devon and Kedzie, and 812 at Touhy and McCormick. In addition to all the storage facilities already in the 50th Ward or within five or six miles, including Peterson and California and the 6300 block of Broadway.

The full story is here.

How to Do a Property Search

Property ownership is a public record. Anyone can view property ownership information. The Recorder’s office does not make condominium declarations, plats, and real estate transfers available online, but they can be purchased at the downtown office, 118 North Clark Street (the County half of Chicago’s City Hall).

Be aware that both of the following sites can be slow to load, especially during busy times of day or if you are using a public computer.

It’s a three-step process:

  1. Get an accurate address for the property. This is sometimes difficult, because in West Ridge many commercial buildings lack visible addresses and board-ups tend not to have addresses at all, but it can be done using phone directories, online business Web sites, and a very useful tool on the Assessor’s Web site: use of an address range. If you can’t find an address in, say, the 1600 block, you can request a search in the range of 1600 to 1700. This is especially useful with abandoned or boarded-up properties.
  2. Go to the Cook County Assessor’s Web site:  Click on “Property Address Search.” Type in the property address (or range), and city.  Click “Search by Address.” You will receive the property’s Property Identification Number (PIN). This site will also provide pictures of the property in question and information about the lot size, structure(s), age, property classification, tax code, assessed value, and other details.
  3. Go the Web site for the Recorder of Deeds: Type in the PIN. A list of all documents in relation to that property will appear. You won’t get much detail online, but you can learn who owns the property, what institution holds the mortgage, and other useful information. You can download or buy copies of documents as well. Pricing information is available on the site.

Lessons in Community Organizing

The least we can expect of groups purporting to represent the community is that they be honest and aboveboard, that they disclose any interests of any kind that they or their leaders have in proposed commercial developments or ward improvements, and that they tell the larger community the full truth.

There are several things the larger community can learn from the way the private deal for the Devon-McCormick development was handled.

  1. Beware of groups raising the specter of a criminal activity. Ask yourself if there’s any evidence to support those claims. Use FOIA to get police statistics. Look for a motive: Who stands to gain? The lesson of Watergate applies here: Follow the money.
  2. Become involved in what’s happening to our commercial spaces. We have lots of vacant lots, buildings, and stores. Who owns them? Have they been taken off the property tax rolls? Are nonprofit groups buying commercial properties to sell later at a profit while they reap years of gain from not paying property taxes?
  3. Are commercial properties being properly maintained? Many buildings on our commercial streets are in horrible disrepair. As I understand it, some of the TIF funds used for the street scape will also be used to improve building facades. Why are the taxpayers funding the improvement of privately-owned buildings, especially when those buildings are owned by wealthy suburbanites? In some cases, façade repair is less than walking-around money for these individuals. Why can’t they pay for their own property upkeep? Has it become customary for business owners to expect handouts from the taxpayers for their business properties while they live in luxury in the suburbs?
  4. Demand that groups purporting to speak for the community be held accountable. Demand full disclosure of all deals put forth in the interests of community improvement. Who’s going to make money if a so-called improvement goes forward? Is the community receiving full information?  How long has this been in the works? What promises have been made? To whom?  By whom? Have there been any political contributions? What political influence has been brought to bear on the desired outcome? At what point in the process are we? Is the community being brought in at the beginning, or are we merely attending meetings to give the illusion of input and to provide legitimacy to a done deal?
  5. Be savvy about press coverage. Don’t believe everything you read. Was the “reporter” present at the event? Was information funneled to the reporter by parties interested in shaping the story and affecting the outcome? What information was omitted? How soon after a community meeting does the first press coverage appear? Does it feel too close for comfort? Were there details revealed in press coverage that weren’t stated at the meeting? Who provided those details? Was it the same person who spoke at the meeting? Why weren’t the details provided when the community was present?

The kind of backroom deal that occurred with the Devon-McCormick redevelopment should not be permitted to happen again.

West Ridge: No Cultural Institutions, Lots of Storage

The lies and deception about “redeveloping” the commercial property at Devon and McCormick continue. Pick up a copy of this week’s News-Star and read all about how the audience “cheered” the idea of yet another storage facility in the neighborhood. In a front-page story with more inaccuracies than truth, Ronald Roenigk breathlessly reported how happy all the neighbors are that the MWRD is giving us a park in exchange for a storage facility almost no one wants..

The lie about the cheering is especially galling. It’s not just that no such cheer occurred. It’s that the opposite happened: There was an overwhelming sense of disappointment in the room, especially because, at the top of the meeting, Richard Trumbo, owner of Music House, Academy of Music and Dance, spoke of the need for a neighborhood cultural center and suggested the theater be repurposed to that end, a suggestion that had much support in the crowd and in social media.

But the Cheder Luubavitch Hebrew Day School and the JCC had other plans, they had all the pieces in place before they came to the community, and they hid their true intent throughout the evening. The so-called “community meeting” was merely an attempt to create legitimacy and gloss over the fact that the community had been shut out in favor of a deal that enriched the school and private individuals at the community’s expense.

To call school officials and the JCCWRP duplicitous is an understatement. Despite questions about who owned the property, no one present, including Rabbi Wolf, the school’s executive director, and other men who described themselves as “representatives” of the owner, would say who that owner was. Nor were they forthcoming about the kind of business they were selling to. It did not become clear until late in the meeting that the theater was to become a storage facility, and it was like pulling teeth to get that information from those in the know.

It was not until two days after the meeting, on Thursday, when DNA Chicago published an interview quoting Rabbi Wolf,  that the community learned what was really going to happen. Many people began looking at the school’s stewardship of the property, and found that, since 2005, when the school bought the theater, it was removed from the property tax rolls. Back taxes on the car wash amount to nearly $6,000. The theater was not then the eyesore that it is now, and the school’s claim that it was unable to secure the property is ludicrous.

It’s important to note that the storage facility will pay property taxes but will not create jobs for the community. As with most storage facilities, this one will have one or two employees. It’s a growth industry for owners, but not for communities seeking job opportunities for residents.

Of course, Ald. Silverstein has never shown the slightest interest in developing an economic plan for West Ridge. She won re-election by not engaging with community residents or her challengers. She chose not to address the blocks of store vacancies, the board-ups, and the vacant lots. The sad fact is that when all you can point to as economic development is a couple of discount dress stores and an ice cream shop, you welcome the idea of storage monoliths as progress. No jobs, but hulking new buildings. We aren’t creating viable and sustainable business districts,  we’re filling storefronts and vacant lots with businesses that do nothing to enrich the community.

I attended that Tuesday meeting. There was no “general applause” greeting the announcement that a park would be created, because there was no such announcement. What David St. Pierre, the MWRD Executive Director, agreed to do was tear up the asphalt in the abandoned parking lot to create a green space IF that was what the community wants. Mr. Roenigk states that “some say that a vacant movie theater and car wash at the location are safety hazards as they attract vandals, graffiti taggers, and burglars almost daily.”  This is the story put forth by the JCC and Rabbi Wolf. The fact is that the school failed to properly secure the building during its 10-year ownership. Reports of daily vandalism and burglaries or burglary attempts are not substantiated by “almost daily” police reports.

The story claims that a letter, purportedly signed by “hundreds of rabbis and community leaders,” was sent to MWRD in December 2014 “…demanding an end to policies that have allowed a blighted and abandoned property to degrade the area,…and quashing efforts aimed at promoting commercial redevelop,ment.” That letter has not been made public, so the signature count could not be verified. In a ward of 55,000 residents, with only a couple of civic or activist organizations and a high percentage of non-English-speakers who know nothing about commercial development  in the neighborhood, the notion that “hundreds of rabbis and community leaders” could be found to sign such a letter is preposterous.

Roenigk also states that the parking lot is vaued at $8 million zoned as commercial space, and $2 million zoned as residential. What was actually said was different. The JCCWRP claimed the space had been valued at $8 million; Mr. St. Pierre said he thought that figure was too high, and that $2 million was accurate. The parking lot is currently zoned as residential.

Howard Rieger, president of the JCC, is quoted as wanting to “transform…the blight into a welcoming gateway” to West Ridge. Considering that we now have a 1200-unit storage facility also owned by Banner Storage Group across the street from the east boundary of the ward, and will now have this ugly monstrosity at the west boundary, what kind of welcome are we extending? [Banner’s storage facility at Devon and Ridge is being built next to the McDonald’s on the east side of Ridge, which is now part of the 40th Ward.] Public Storage alone has 17 locations within six miles of the 60645 Zip Code. There is a storage facility at California and Peterson. There are several storage facilities just across McCormick in Lincolnwood. There’s talk of a third facility on Western. Soon there will be more storage units than people in West Ridge.

Roenigk closes his story by presenting a picture of happy residents thrilled by the idea of getting a park in exchange for a hulking storage facility, excitedly talking about plans for another meeting to discuss further plans. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most attendees left disappointed. Community input? A sham.  Other possibilities for the site?  Non-existent. A cultural center for the community? You must be joking.

This was a done deal before the community learned anything about it. Vital information was deliberately withheld from residents, although it appeared in an online newspaper AFTER the so-called community meeting. A second meeting will serve no useful purpose except to decide who will take responsibility for maintaining the park. Whether or not that group will also have to shovel the entire bridge and walkway connecting Kedzie to McCormick is also up for debate. It’s doubtful the MWRD will continue to do so.

I suggest we let the JCCWRP be the responsible party. They got what they wanted, now let them take care of it.

Storage Facility or Cultural Center?

I attended last night’s meeting about redevelopment plans for the southeast corner of Devon and McCormick. It’s not yet a done deal but it appears to be close, and the larger community needs to be involved quickly.

The proposal is simple: In exchange for green space where the abandoned parking lot now stands, developers will tear down the theater and the car wash and build a storage facility. The deal is contingent on turning the parking lot into green space. This will provide a park for the community and will also enhance the appearance of the proposed 3-story storage facility.

It was stated that once the parking lot is replaced with turf, the developers would close on the deal within 45 days. It will then be too late for community input. The removal of the asphalt is the key to the project. Because the storage facility is viewed as the only type of business that would not require parking, it’s considered by many to be the only option for redevelopment. Where the facility’s customers would park was not addressed.

The meeting was sponsored by the Jewish Community Council of West Rogers Park. David St. Pierre, the Executive Director of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD), provided an overview of the site and said that he is ready to do whatever the community wants. MWRD owns the land on which the parking lot sits. The theater and car wash sites are privately owned.

Mr. St. Pierre said that the parking site is zoned as residential, and that it was abandoned because a re-evaluation of the property some years ago made operating the parking lot “impractical.” The site was evaluated at either about $2 million (his figure) or $8 million (the JCCWRP figure).  Changing the zoning is not considered an option.

Early in the meeting, Richard Trumbo, owner of Music House, Academy of Music and Dance on Devon Avenue, spoke briefly but forcefully about the community’s need for a cultural center, and suggested that repurposing the theater would meet that need and fit well with the goals of the Chicago Cultural Plan. The theater has been allowed to deteriorate, so any re-use would depend on how much damage has been done to it through owner neglect.

There was a marked reluctance on the part of those in the know to state exactly what business would be opening if the developers prevail. The fact that it is a storage facility emerged relatively late in the meeting, and many in the audience didn’t like the idea. But many others repeated the mantra that anything would be better than the blight that’s there now.

In my opinion, it’s this kind of short-sighted thinking that’s led to the sorry state of shopping throughout the ward. Filling storefronts rather than building business districts is not the answer. Neither is development without a unifying vision. The site in question has been vacant for 10 years, and a few more months of discussion involving a true cross-section of the community won’t do any harm. There are concerns about crime, the buildings having been vandalized and broken into, but why the owners have not seen fit to maintain and secure the property was not addressed.

I’ve been told that another storage facility is being built on Western and have heard that a third site is also being considered. I don’t think the community is well served by having storage facilities as its only growth industry. We need business that will provide jobs and sales tax revenue. The Devon-McCormick site was referred to as a “gateway” to shopping for both Chicago and Lincolnwood. I would prefer that shoppers entering West Ridge from the north and west encounter a cultural center rather than a storage facility as their first glimpse of our community.

Responsibility for maintaining the green space may fall on the community, unless the Chicago Park District is willing and able to take it over. There is a meeting between JCCWRP leaders and park district officials later this week. Several concerned citizens spoke out against relying on the park district, which has cut back on services in recent years.

If the community were to take responsibility, there would be a nominal fee, perhaps $10 per year, so the community would in effect rent the space and be required to maintain it. One important question that was not addressed is whether the community would then be responsible for shoveling the bridge between Kedzie Avenue and McCormick in the winter. This is now the responsibility of MWRD.

Another meeting will be scheduled to address issues raised last night. Watch this space for more information. In the meantime, you might want to review both the Cultural Plan of Chicago  (here) and the offerings of Music House – Academy of Music and Dance (here).


Strolling on Devon on A Sunday Afternoon

It was so nice on Sunday that I decided to take a walk on Devon from California to Western. The groceries were crowded, the other stores were empty, quite a few stores were closed, and some were closing up shop for good.

Lots of garbage just a few feet from open produce bins.

Lots of garbage just a few feet from open produce bins.

Bag of garbage tossed on a side street parkway.

Bag of garbage tossed on a side street parkway. Lots of garbage on the street, too.

Blocking a crosswalk. Whoever's in the store is always far more important than whoever's trying to cross the street. And he won't move.

Blocking a crosswalk. Whoever’s in the store is always far more important than whoever’s trying to cross the street. And he won’t move.

Signs of the times: Business for Sale and Moving Sale.

Signs of the times: Business for Sale and Moving Sale.

Not a trash can but it will do. At least its not on the ground.

Not a trash can but it will do. At least the garbage isn’t on the ground.

This guy appeared to be turning east but made a quick swerve to the right and turned west in front of me.

This guy appeared to be turning east but made a quick swerve to the right and turned west in front of me.

There are always abandoned shopping carts.

There are always abandoned shopping carts.

Another crosswalk blocker.

Another crosswalk blocker.

Garbage and graffiti but no phone.

Garbage and graffiti but no phone.

No fewer than three vehicles blocking the bus stop at Rockwell. The CTA moved the stop from the corner to in front of the supermarket. Cars park, wait, and load without any regard for bus passengers, who must board and alight in the middle of the street.

No fewer than three vehicles blocking the bus stop at Rockwell. The CTA moved the stop from the corner to a spot in front of the supermarket. Cars park, wait, and load without any regard for bus passengers, who must board and alight in the middle of the street.

Crates are always dumped behind the seating outside this supermarket.

Crates are always dumped behind the seating outside this supermarket. The planter always has more garbage than plantings.

Lots of debris at Devon and Washtenaw.

Lots of debris at Devon and Washtenaw.

Park and dump.

Park and dump.

Bottles left over from Saturday night's drinking. More bottles litter this parkway all the way to the alley and then east to Washtenaw. Devon and Fairfield.

Bottles left over from Saturday night’s drinking. More bottles litter this parkway all the way to the alley and then east to Washtenaw. Devon and Fairfield.


A Vote for Chuy is a Vote for Positive Change

I’m not a Rahm-hater. I think he’s done what he could with the mess Richie Daley left behind. Daley bamboozled the City for years and the cowardly City Council did nothing to stop him. Any attempts at rebellion were quashed by the withholding or granting of funds and city services.

But Rahm continued that tradition. He’s far too comfortable with moneyed interests and not comfortable at all with the working stiffs who give this City its real vibrancy–the people who raise their families in the non-trendy neighborhoods, the people who start small businesses like food carts or two-table restaurants, the people who bear the brunt of high taxes and higher fees, who fight for better schools for their children, and who want an end to the corruption that fuels Chicago. Rahm tried to buy  the City Council he wanted this time around, and would have succeeded were it not for mayoral candidates like Chuy Garcia, Bob Fioretti, and Willie Wilson, each of whom brought reform elements to the race.

Frankly, I’m tired of candidates who say they’ll fight for my interests. I think I’d be far better represented by someone who is willing to listen, to talk, to reach consensus, to compromise where necessary and fair without losing basic moral convictions. Money talks–and talks far too much in Chicago. It’s time for the people to ber heard.

Those who support Chuy are determined to build a Chicago that doesn’t rely on who you know but on who you are. Those who are working for Chuy’s election are working for neighborhood empowerment, for the kind of people-power that all too often disappears after elections, when reality sets in and the power brokers make their return, always ready with a pocketful of cash to indoctrinate the victors into the way the system really works.

A vote for Chuy is a vote for positive change. It is the best opportunity Chicagoans have had for decades to elect a mayor who really is like us–not a rich guy with Ivy League connections and lots of powerful friends on Wall Street, but a man who knows how hard it is to make a buck, to take care of your family, and to keep your dreams alive. He can work with the rich and powerful without losing his values precisely because he never set out to become one of them. He knows who he is and what he stands for. He never left the old neighborhood. He’s one of us.

And that’s why we’ll be voting for him on April 7.



Purim Drunks?

According to DNA Chicago, extra police have been assigned to patrol West Ridge during the Purim festival to watch for drunken drivers. Read the story here

Last year’s Feast of Eid drew no extra police. Nor did the India Day festival; all the cops disappeared after the parade, when the real drinking started. As I noted in my comment to this article, this is why Debra’s base overwhelmingly re-elected her: public resources directed solely to one segment and one area of the community. There’s no evidence that public or private drunkenness is such an overwhelming problem during Purim that an increased police presence is required.

If only the southeast end of the ward merited a tiny bit of the attention lavished on the northwest end!


Poll: Term Limits for Aldermen?

I’m also wondering if we should have term limits for aldermen. What do you think?

Poll results will be reported March 10.

[I lost my first poll, about the election, when I tried to move it and a post to another page. They both disappeared. I promise not to do that again.]


Poll: Does the City Need 50 Aldermen?

I’ve been wondering if it’s time to have a serious debate about the number of aldermen in Chicago. Given the ongoing budget crisis, do we really need 50 wards? Would administration of city services be improved if we had only 25 wards?  How much would taxpayers save in administrative costs if we had to support only 25 ward offices? What are the trade-offs?

The Better Government Association studied this question in depth and published a provocative report in December 2010. Read its report here.

What do you think?  Poll results will be reported March 10.

[I lost my first poll, about the election, when I tried to move it and another post to another page. Both disappeared. I promise not to do that again.]