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.

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