Patients Aren’t Potheads

Here we go again.

A medical marijuana dispensary, one of only 13 in the entire city, has been proposed for 6501 North Western Avenue, next door to Warren Park. The owner says he plans to hire workers from the 50th Ward, particularly veterans and the disabled. Most residents are happy to see a viable business that would employ neighborhood residents and relieve human suffering choose West Ridge as its location.

The only resident whose vote determines whether or not that business opens doesn’t agree. On Friday Alderman Silverstein announced that she is “unequivocally” opposed to any medical marijuana clinic in the 50th Ward. Just flatly refused to consider it. In true Silverstein style, she offered no reasons, no explanation of the thinking behind her opposition.

On Sunday, the alderman claimed her opposition is based on the “hundreds of children” from 2 to 17 engaged in the park’s sports activities, day camp, and other year-round programs. As further justification, she bizarrely noted that “In addition, Warren Park is home to three playgrounds, tennis courts, batting cages and an ice skating rink,”  all apparently in danger from seriously ill people filling valid prescriptions at a legal business tightly regulated by federal, state, and local authorities.

She supports the idea of medical marijuana, she says, but many residents have told her that they object to the facility, and now “…it has become my feeling that this is not the proper location….”  The clincher comes when she announces that she “strongly believe(s) in community involvement…” and wants to hear from everyone in the neighborhood.

The similarities between this proposed business and the recently-approved storage facility are too obvious to overlook.

Both campaigns began with fear-mongering.  Then it was the alleged crisis of “almost daily” crime at the old theater, now it’s the danger to 2-year-olds from patients seeking to relieve their suffering. Just like a storage facility is the only business that could open on the theater site, a medical marijuana dispensary is the only business that can’t open across from the park. The community is invited to have a role in the process, and then it turns out that the “majority” doesn’t represent the entire community.

I have heard only one person speak against the proposed business, and that’s Debra Silverstein.

Let’s look at the other businesses currently across from the park.

Is the alderman worried about McDonald’s? Should kids be exposed to all that fat and salt, all those empty calories? I’ve yet to meet a kid who goes to McDonald’s for the salad. Using the alderman’s logic, we should ban fast food operators from locating across from parks lest they turn our kids away from healthy outdoor activities and get them hooked on unhealthy foods.

What about the car showrooms? Cars are dangerous, too. Speed. Sex. Independence. Should we encourage kids to dream of the day when they can zoom away in their very own speedster to indulge in who-knows-what illicit pleasures? We’ll need to ban car sales on Western to protect the kids.

How about those vacant stores and lots? Exposing kids to business failure, encouraging graffiti, suggesting political indifference. Should we attract some business that might bring employment and payroll taxes and benefit some members of the community as well? Not if it’s a medical marijuana dispensary. Better to let some alderman with less moral indignation and more common sense snap it up to benefit another ward.

The alderman’s protests ring hollow. The change between Friday’s absolute refusal to allow the dispensary to set up shop anywhere in the ward and Sunday’s I-just-want-to-protect-the-kids backtracking suggests that the messages she’s heard are in support of the proposed business, not against it. She might be open to locating it elsewhere. Meanwhile, she invites residents to attend the public meeting on May 28 at the Zoning Board of Appeals. This could be another formality, another event staged to look like democracy in action.

Is another done deal in the works? Is there another packed meeting in our future? Are we in for another display of moral hypocrisy?

We’ll need to protect the kids from that, too.

A Done Deal

It was a done deal after all. A 600- to 900-unit storage facility will open at Devon and McCormick despite community opposition.

An observer who knew nothing about democracy might think he’d seen it in action last night. Citizens engaged in debate about the merits of a planned economic development, followed by a vote to determine whether or not that development would proceed.

In truth, it was a farce all too typical of what passes for citizen involvement in 50th Ward decision-making. The outcome had been determined in advance, and was guaranteed by packing the room with direct beneficiaries of the disputed development. The outnumbered but vocal opponents were politely listened to and just as politely ignored.

Ald. Silverstein opened the meeting by stating that discussion would be limited to the question of the storage facility, and said that she was unaware of any other proposals for the site. She introduced Rabbi Wolf, whom she described as “the school’s owner,” and he gave a highly selective history of the acquisition and ownership of the site by Cheder Lubavitch Hebrew Day School. [The school has owned the property since 2008, and had an interest in it since summer of 2007.]

According to the rabbi, although 174 businesses expressed interest in acquiring the property once the school decided to sell it, the exceptionally high rent charged for the parking lot by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) was a deal-breaker in every case. Raising his voice dramatically, and waving his index finger in the air, the rabbi declared that “…there is one, and only one, business [that doesn’t need the parking lot].” That would be—wait for it—a storage facility.

But, the rabbi said, he didn’t want “a box” to replace the theater, he wanted a “state of the art” storage facility. Apparently this was meant to show his concern for the community.

The rabbi’s performance was at times near comical in its exaggeration, but met with rousing applause from the two-thirds of the room that will benefit directly from the sale of the property to Banner Storage Group.

The rabbi was followed by Gary Delaney from Banner, who said that Banner will demolish the car wash and remodel the theater site, which will lose its rooftop heating and cooling equipment, thus making the building somewhat less high even though it will have five floors instead of the present three. The drawings presented depict a boxy, multi-level building whose signage was immediately questioned by an audience member. Would the signs be tasteful, she asked. The response was classic: Signage will comply with city requirements. Pressed a bit further, he reluctantly allowed that signage would be “tasteful.” We’ll see.

He described the average storage facility customer as a woman who wants easy access to her property as she goes about her day. He said that as homes get smaller, storage facilities are needed to store things like snow skis in summer and bikes in winter. An audience member questioned whether another storage facility is needed, referring to the near-empty 180-unit Safeguard storage facility at Peterson and California, which the man said he understood is only 7% leased. Delaney responded by stating that he used to be VP for Safeguard; that he hired the manager of the California/Peterson facility; that he thinks it has about 600 units; and that he didn’t know what percentage of units were occupied.

I’d call this nonsense, since nobody opening a business would not know about his immediate competition in detail, but in this case it’s probably true. It’s the same line of thinking that has given us 50 groceries and 22 cell phone stores in 24 blocks on Devon Avenue. It’s the mentality that says that any kind of business is better than no business at all. It’s what happens when a neighborhood has to take whatever it can get.

David St. Pierre, Executive Director of MWRD, stated that the property was evaluated by MWRD at $2M, and that MWRD is required by statute to charge a percentage of that evaluation as rent for the parking lot, currently $120,000 per year. He had stated at the previous meeting on this development that changing the statute would be difficult and time-consuming.

Think about that: A law that impedes economic development cannot be changed. Ever. Yet I understand that the law was changed to favor the school when it bought the property. More on that in a later post.

The attorney for the school, in a voice choked with emotion, declared that the school considered the hulking storage facility to be “fair” to the community, noting that “nobody is going to get rich” on the sale, although he admitted that the school will get back every penny of its investment and then some. He pleaded with opponents of the storage facility to understand that he himself had spent “dozens” of hours trying to find another solution. He did not say if he volunteered his time or was paid for it.

St. Pierre has “a contract ready to go.” The Chicago Park District will manage the property, although it has no funds for playground equipment. Present plans “call for only grass and trees.” One audience member asked Delaney if Banner would donate some money for that purpose. Trapped, he agreed to donate “the first $10,000.” Another round of applause from the winning side.

Other questions from the please-no-storage community:

Can the neighborhood get a set of plans for the site? No. Nothing’s been approved yet, said the alderman, and that’s the reason for the meeting. Not to fear: Banner is ready to submit plans and can start work this year. More cheers from the school’s supporters.

Won’t a storage facility contribute to a lack of vibrancy in the area, since many stores in the Lincoln Village shopping center are vacant? wondered another audience member. She noted that, should the storage facility go through, we’d no doubt be back for another community meeting about the shopping center’s troubles. She was listened to politely. The response was more praise for storage.

The alderman announced a vote. Since the school had packed the audience, the school won. Victory was declared, cheers erupted, and the wider community lost another round to special interests.

The property will be returned to the tax rolls after its 10-year absence, but it will be interesting to see what tax breaks and taxpayer support Banner will receive for the project. There is an existing TIF that includes the Lincoln Village Shopping Center, but it’s not clear if this property is included.

Whether it might have been more fair to hold a series of community meetings is now moot. The audience at the first meeting knew instinctively that this was a done deal, and that any follow-up meeting would be a sham. And it was. But neither the school nor the alderman wanted real outreach to the community. The deal might not have gone through if they had, so the storage proponents raised false alarms about crime and rushed the project through, then packed the room to ensure a favorable vote.

Under the Silversteins’ leadership, civic participation in the ward has declined markedly. Even allowing for the high percentage of undocumented residents (10-12% according to the 2010 census), the number of residents who bother to vote has reached a new low, with nearly 4,000 fewer voters in this year’s aldermanic election than turned out when Debra Silverstein ran the first time in 2011, and just shy of 2,000 fewer voters this time around than voted in the subsequent run-off.

People don’t participate in civic activities and don’t vote when they believe they don’t have a stake in the outcome and/or that their participation is meaningless. Roughly 125 people out of a ward of 55,000 residents voted for a storage facility. Virtually all of them had a personal stake in the outcome, since the Cheder Lubavitch school is the sole beneficiary of the sale.

That’s 0.23% of the population of West Ridge. That’s what passes for democracy in the 50th Ward.

Participatory Budgeting

The lucky residents of the 49th Ward will begin voting this Saturday on how to spend the ward’s $1.3M in menu money. Here’s the sample ballot for this year’s choices:


I’d like to see participatory budgeting in the 50th Ward. Maybe pressure from residents can achieve in our ward what the alderman has so far resisted: input from residents into both menu money spending and community development decisions.


Devon-McCormick Redevelopment, Round 2

Ald. Silverstein has called a meeting to discuss with residents the redevelopment of the abandoned 1-6 Cineplex and adjacent car wash at Devon and McCormick. The meeting is scheduled for Monday, April 20, at 6:30 p.m. at West Ridge Elementary School, 6700 North Whipple.  This is your chance to tell the alderman that you want a cultural center, not a storage facility, as the western gateway to our neighborhood.

I understand from a posting on NextDoor West Ridge that other potential uses are being considered for the site. No specifics at this writing, although I’ve asked what those other developments might be and who is driving them. You can read the thread here.

It’s important that as many residents as possible attend, especially if you’d prefer that the neighborhood have at least one cultural institution, just one place where we could celebrate the arts and artists and cultures that are so important in building community. Those of us opposed to yet another storage facility need to be represented. This is not a decision that should be made without real input from the community.

Even though the alderman didn’t approve this project right away, I suspect that it is a done deal. I was told last week by someone who should know that the alderman has been getting calls telling her that she needs to approve the storage facility or some of her support will disappear. Frankly, given her victory in February, I don’t see how any threats to withdraw support would have any effect. Most of her campaign contributions came from outside the ward, although she did accept money from business interests within the ward and from individual resident donors.

No matter what she decides, Silverstein will disappoint a significant number of residents. Which part of her constituency loses on this issue will be a major indicator of the ward’s direction over the next four years.

[See related posts, “Storage Facility or Cultural Center?,” “West Ridge: No Cultural Institutions, Lots of Storage,” and “More Storage Coming” for the history of this proposed development.]


Election Shenanigans Again?

I was called on Election Day by a voter who said that judges in “the precinct on Kedzie” had been urging voters to vote for Rahm Emanuel. The caller said that there were no pollwatchers in that precinct. I referred the caller to both the Garcia campaign and the State’s Attorney’s office, and understand that an investigator was to be dispatched to find out what was happening.

There were reports in the February election that judges in certain precincts were telling voters that there were no write-in candidates when, in fact, there were two, Fuji Shioura and Peter Sifnotis. I don’t know yet if this precinct was involved in that episode as well.

The alderman, her husband, and one of their daughters visited every precinct on election day in February, asking about turnout and greeting voters, a clear violation of election law, as was the alderman’s visit, again accompanied by her husband, to the early voting site in Warren Park during the campaign. They left only after their presence was challenged by another candidate.

We’ll be voting in primary elections just about a year from now. It’s time for more citizens to consider becoming involved in the electoral process as election judges or poll watchers. Without honest people committed to fair elections on duty in every precinct on election day, we will continue to have incidents like these.

We cannot and should not allow this to become standard election behavior. The fact that all political power in the ward is held by one family–the Silversteins–should not mean that election laws don’t apply in the 50th Ward.



Payback Pettiness

My precinct voted against Debra Silverstein in February. Such independence requires payback.

For the mayoral run-off, my precinct was not assigned a PA (Precinct Assistant) to set up the electronic equipment. Precincts that supported Debra were. Judges didn’t get any coffee or lunch, either, although judges in precincts that supported Debra did. I also heard that two other precincts that came out against Debra in February had malfunctioning equipment in April.

The ward committeeman is responsible for the election process, so this was Silverstein-controlled from start to finish. And there was no warning that no PA would be available to us. We had to call downtown to find that none had been assigned.

Now, it’s true that the Board of Elections makes it clear that judges should not expect to be fed by anybody other than themselves. But assigning PAs? It’s telling that the precincts that supported Debra in February were the only ones that received support from the ward committeeman’s office in April.

This is exactly the way the Silversteins apportion city services in the ward: friends and supporters get more than their fair share of street cleaning, road paving, and new lighting.  The rebellious southeast side of the ward gets nothing. The decision not to support all precincts equally is troubling because the electoral process is taxpayer-supported, just like City services. Public resources should be allocated fairly and equally, a concept unknown to the Silversteins.

Except the street scape. Storage facilities. And political pettiness.

I have a feeling payback season is just beginning. Stay tuned.

FAiR: Fighting Airplane Noise

Is the airplane noise getting to you? Are you awakened at 4:30 a.m. as the first planes of the morning begin to descend on their approach to O’Hare? Do you know how the recent O’Hare expansion has impacted some areas of West Ridge?

Jac Charlier of FAiR (Fair Allocation in Runways) will be addressing these and many other issues relating to airplane noise in a community meeting set for Saturday, April 25, at the Northtown Library. Jac recently helped organize and lead the FAiR protest demonstration at the final mayoral debate between Rahm Emanuel and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia. Chuy had pledged support for the group in February.

At the debate the mayor announced that the City of Chicago would consider keeping certain diagonal runways open to lessen the number of flights over city neighborhoods that have borne the brunt of the noise created by the new runways. As reported by the Chicago Sun-Times, the five city wards most affected by the noise are home to more than 100,000 voters. FAiR is working with State legislators to change state law to allow the runways to remain open. Currently, state law limits the number of runways under City jurisdiction to eight, and a state certificate is required to increase that number.

West Ridge is impacted less than neighborhoods just south of us, but the increased noise is undeniable. I attended the demonstration, and the jet noise at times made conversation impossible. It does at my home, too, with as many as three planes almost directly overhead at times. When a plane is approaching my TV signal disappears. One Sunday in March I tracked nine planes in 30 minutes in the predawn hours. The first plane rumbled overhead this morning (April 6) at 4:30 a.m.

FAiR has worked with suburban mayors and local officials whose communities have also been severely impacted by the changes at O’Hare. It has created a coalition of concerned citizens from both the City and the suburbs who are demanding that City, State, and airline officials work with the communities negatively affected by runway changes at O’Hare. It’s one thing to buy a home near the airport. It’s another to have the airport brought to your door years later.

Please read the following information from FAiR. This citizen group has had amazing success on this issue, further proof that organizing neighbors around issues central to the common good is an effective way to create and strengthen community.

This event is sponsored by POWR (People of West Ridge), a new nonprofit community organization. Our Web site is under construction. For more information, contact me via e-mail ( or this blog.

What is FAiR
FAiR Coalition Policy Statement Fall 2013
FAiR Coalition Accomplishments
FAiR New Runway Primer