A Little Hysteria, a Lot of Hooey

One year ago residents of West Ridge were alerted to what we were assured was a situation in urgent need of community action. The old Cineplex Theater had become “an eyesore,” a “magnet” for criminal activity, including taggers and burglars, a safety hazard, and a blight on the community. The property was deteriorating, and something had to be done immediately; the community was invited to come together to make a decision about the future of the Devon-Lincoln-McCormick gateway to West Ridge.

To briefly recap, the theater’s owner, Cheder Luubavitch Hebrew Day School, had a buyer (Banner Storage Group), that had agreed to pay the school exactly what it had paid for the property some ten years earlier. The alderman, officially neutral (even first-time observers know what that means), held a couple of community meetings at which the plan was presented by school officials and David St. Pierre, Executive Director of the City’s Water Reclamation District (WRD). The WRD owned the parking lot on the property and had priced itself out of the commercial market by demanding huge fees to rent the lot, a factor in the theater’s closing. The MRD now agreed to lease the parking lot to the community for a nominal sum and to replace the lot with green space for residents if the sale to Banner was approved.

A community meeting packed with direct beneficiaries of the sale voted approval of the proposal to sell to Banner.  If you weren’t paying attention, you might have thought you’d seen democracy in action.

Anyway, the school got its money, Banner got its site, the community got a garbage-strewn green space, and the alderman got a press release touting economic development as well as pictures for her weekly newsletter and year-end report.  She also got a $1,000 contribution from Banner to her political fund as well as a donation of $250 from one of the school’s leaders.

Sniffing the air yet? No, it’s not your imagination.

One year later, the site is an eyesore with a front lawn. The exaggerated statements about the property’s condition, its attraction for criminals, and the need for urgent corrective action by the community were just a cover to deflect criticism about turning the site into a storage facility.

A little hysteria, a lot of hooey. The site is no better today than it was a year ago. It’s just no longer a problem.

[In December 2015, Banner received Special Warranty Deeds on both the theater site and the car wash from Cheder Luubavitch Hebrew Day School. Perhaps construction will start soon.]

Here’s what the site looks like today (photos taken Sunday, February 28, 2016).


Rats, Cats, and Pigs

Last week the alderman’s newsletter described a meeting between her and residents on Whipple about combatting the rat problem in that area. Channel 5 broadcast a news brief about it.

The newsletter prominently displayed a photo of the alderman at the meeting. The broadcast featured the cats.

Both the newsletter and the TV report gave full credit to the Tree House Humane Society and its Tree House Cats at Work program, which uses neutered, vaccinated feral cats to help keep the rodent population under control. West Ridge joined the program several months ago, with local residents agreeing to  provide food and shelter for the cats. [The program was first approved for use in  Chicago in 2007.]

The real problem in West Ridge is pigs. Some of them live here and some are visitors, but all of them leave their garbage all over our streets, parkways, sidewalks, and alleys.  A walk down almost any street in West Ridge is a lesson in keeping rats fat, healthy, and breeding.

Tenants in some buildings don’t care about wading through garbage to get to their front doors. Some landlords don’t care about keeping their properties clean, and don’t properly screen their tenants. Some property owners simply don’t provide enough dumpsters, or schedule garbage pick-ups often enough. This is particularly true in the south and southeast ends of the ward. Some restaurants and food-related businesses don’t care how they dispose of food waste, either.

With City services cut to the bone, there simply aren’t enough field inspectors to handle the volume of complaints about poorly-maintained properties or overflowing garbage. Littering laws can be enforced only if the cops see somebody dumping trash, not if a citizen does. People who don’t live in the area don’t care how they leave it. I’ve seen garbage tossed out of car windows on both Western and Devon Avenues, and can’t count the number of times I’ve asked people to pick up coffee cups they’ve dropped on the street or tossed in a planter.

The cats can handle the rats. But what do we do about the pigs?



Update: Rezoning of Dispensary Site to Residential Housing

The alderman’s request to have the zoning at 6501 North Western Avenue changed from commercial to residential was approved on February 9, 2016.

A medical marijuana dispensary had been proposed for the site, but the alderman opposed it, and she has now changed the zoning to ensure that no commercial activity can occur at that site in the future.

Another defeat for economic opportunity and job creation in our commercially-dying ward.

Book List

I read a lot, and I read everything, from cookbooks to novels to multi-volume histories. My new page, Book List, shares some of the books I’ve enjoyed over the past year.

Lately I’ve been reading the Perry Mason stories; some of the earliest are out of print and hard to find, but the Chicago Public Library has a good selection, including the first book in the series. Mason was certainly cleaned up for TV!

I’ll be adding other books from time to time, so if you enjoy book recommendations please check back. And please let me know what books you’ve enjoyed. I’m always open to a good read.

Free Emergency ID Bracelet for Senior Citizens

The 24th District CAPS office is distributing free ID bracelets to seniors. Each bracelet carries a unique ID number that will identify the wearer in the event of an emergency.

The process is simple: Contact the 24th District Community Relations Office via phone (312/744-6321) or e-mail (caps.024district@chicagopolice.org). Tell them you want to receive an ID  bracelet. You’ll be asked to fill out a form that has your emergency contact info (name, address, DOB, name and phone number of emergency contact, doctor’s name, list of medications, etc.). That information will be securely and confidentially maintained by the CAPS office. You will then receive a bracelet with a unique ID number.

Should an emergency arise, first responders would relay that ID number to the police, who would access the information which you provided, thus ensuring that you are properly identified and the person(s) closest to you are immediately notified.

Thanks to the 24th District CAPS Office and Sgt. Shawn Sisk for providing such a useful service to senior citizens and their families.

Dizzy from the Spin

One could get dizzy from the spin the alderman put on the City Council’s vote authorizing the City’s Legislative Inspector General to investigate aldermen and their staffs.

Wearing her good-government face, she proclaims it “good news” and an “historic moment.”  Then, wearing her reformer’s mask, she intones  that it “…does not go far enough.” Really? Wasn’t that the point?  I don’t recall hearing the alderman speaking out against it, or speaking passionately in favor of the original ordinance. Did you?

I don’t recall her ever supporting the work of the previous Council watchdog, Faisal Khan, or voting in favor of renewing his contract. Maybe I missed something.

The kicker is the straight face she wears while claiming that she is “…always in favor of transparency and accountability….”  Debra Silverstein??? 

Transparency, accountability, Silverstein. I’d never put those words together and expect to be taken seriously.

Unfortunately, she does. Worse, she expects us to believe them.




Aldermen Avoid Real Reform

The City Council voted yesterday to limit the ability of the Legislative Inspector General to fully investigate the aldermen and their staffs. Enough alderman decided to keep the IG and the taxpayers out of things like where the menu money really goes and how worker’s compensation issues are determined.  The keep-it-like-it-is ordinance passed by a slim margin (25-23), but it was enough to clearly signal that, once again, Chicago ain’t ready for reform.

Ald. Silverstein voted against the weakened ordinance. Don’t think she’s interested in reform. By the time the roll call got around to her, it was clear that the anti-reform block had carried the day. It was a win-win for her: She could look for a moment like a good-government type, and then safely return to the 50th Ward, where she and her husband wield absolute political control.

It’s worth noting that the real alderman–the one we’ve watched in (in)action for the past five years–pulled a fast one earlier this week.  On Monday a City Council zoning committee was asked to approve a zoning change for a site on which a businessman hoped to build an MMD; the alderman asked that the site be zoned residential. She referred this matter to the Council committee last October 14, while an appeal was pending before the City’s Zoning Board, an appeal that was not finally denied until December 18.

Reform is a sometime thing, I guess.

We’ll see how she spins this vote–if she discusses it at all–in her weekly newsletter. Lately she’s had a tendency to claim co-sponsorship of reform measures; the truth is she’s always late to the table (so many people to check with before she acts, and Ira’s out of town a lot blocking reform in Springfield) and is therefore just another name on the list rather than the mover and shaker her prose suggests.

Two aldermen weren’t present for the vote: Roberto Maldonado (26) and Carrie Austin (34). Austin’s absence is interesting because she, along with Ald. Ed Burke (14) fought the hardest to block the IG from auditing City programs. I wonder if one of them would have popped up had the vote been tied.

Joe Ferguson, the Legislative Inspector General, sent this letter to taxpayers. It’s well worth reading–and remembering when 2019 rolls around.


Proposed Dispensary Site to Become Private Housing

As regular readers know, the alderman was adamantly opposed to the opening of a medical marijuana dispensary at 6501 North Western Avenue. Unable to give a reason, she fumbled around for several weeks before finally claiming that her opposition was based solely on her belief that such dispensaries should not be located near parks “…where children play.”

The real reason appears to be quite different. It seems that the alderman already had other plans for the site.

Tomorrow, Feb. 9, at 10 a.m., the City Council’s Committee on Zoning, Landmarks, and Building Standards will meet to approve a zoning change requested by the alderman for the site where the dispensary might have stood. Zoning will change from C2-2 Motor Vehicle Commercial District to RS2 Residential Single Unit (Detached House).

The zoning request was referred to the Zoning Committee on October 14, 2015. The dispensary’s application was still on appeal at that point, and the final decision not to hear the appeal was not made until December 18, 2015.

A medical marijuana dispensary that would have employed neighborhood residents, primarily veterans of the U.S. Armed Services and the disabled, was blocked by the alderman in favor of building one or more private houses that will no doubt be beyond the financial reach of most neighborhood residents.

Current ownership of the lot could not be verified because the Assessor’s Web site could not be accessed. It will be interesting to see who buys the property (now officially “Off Market,” per Loop Net), who develops it, and who buys the house(s).  Lot size is reportedly 10,000 sq. ft. so it’s possible that more than one house will be built.

Whether or how the existence of private housing immediately next to Warren Park will affect future events in the park is unknown.

You can bet there’ll be donations to the right political coffers. In a ward whose alderman operates with such a complete lack of transparency, and whose behind-the-scenes maneuverings are so well-known, it’s always best to follow the money.

This farce is another example of the alderman’s version of economic development:  If it works for the few and the moneyed, it’s a good thing.

Chicago Municipal Code zoning regulations can be found here.


Sign the TIF Petition

Tom Tresser, co-founder of The Civic Lab, has spent years tracking TIF funds and how they’re used, misused, and/or not used. His research shows that the City currently has over $1 billion in available TIF funds, money that came from our property taxes and could now be spent to relieve the ongoing school-funding crisis or be put toward other taxpayer priorities.

Tom is seeking signatures on a petition demanding that all available TIF funds be returned to the proper governmental unit to serve their original purpose.

The TIF program, designed to help build infrastructure across the City, particularly in poor and underserved areas, has instead been used by both Mayor Daley and Mayor Emanuel to help private corporations and real estate developers. One recent example is the Montrose-Clarendon development, which would give $16 million in TIF funds to a private developer for a 381-unit building at Montrose & Clarendon. Only 20 of those apartments would be set aside as subsidized housing for current neighborhood residents.

Please join your fellow Chicagoans in signing this important petition. Help Tom get your money back!

For more information on the Montrose-Clarendon development, see the City’s Web site, which contains links to both the Community Development Commission and City Plan Commission staff reports. And don’t miss Ben Joravsky’s December 2013 column in The Reader that tackles the issue of TIF funding for both an earlier version of the Montrose-Clarendon project and other sites.


A Tale of Two Restaurants

Last week DNA Info revealed that Wendy’s would be building a drive-through restaurant on the old Northtown Theater site (6324 North Western Avenue). The City Council approved the exception for it, sponsored by the alderman, because that’s what the Council does when an alderman wants a business to locate in his/her ward.

Cynics will contrast the Wendy’s approval with the alderman’s supposed neutrality in the matter of the zoning change needed for the medical marijuana dispensary a couple of blocks away, or her outright refusal to even consider a zoning change that would allow an already-built, taxpayer-funded commercial kitchen to open.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the alderman clearly supports minimum wage jobs over opportunities for entrepreneurs and jobs for U.S. armed forces veterans and the disabled.

But entrepreneurs who don’t need the alderman’s help can succeed in this ward. Take Ajibola and Fummibi Johnson, Nigerian immigrants who will be opening their new restaurant, Simi’s, next door to the new Wendy’s at the site (6310 North Western Avenue) of the former Noora’s Café, which closed last year . The Johnsons needed no zoning change, and no drive-through.  Simi’s opens this Friday. Read the DNA story here.

That’s the way to do business in the 50th Ward.

Don’t get the alderman involved.