Hindi Temple on Devon: A Secret Deal, A Bad Location

Local news media reported over the weekend that Ald. Debra Silverstein and “the community” had approved construction of a Hindu temple on Devon Avenue.

It was a lie.

Silverstein has clearly been taking lessons in arrogance from her mentor the Mayor, issuing major announcements as the weekend starts so that whatever she’s up to becomes old news by Monday morning, thus lessening pushback from a ward used to being told what it wants by Silverstein and the special interests she pacifies and controls to keep herself in power.

Displaying the lack of honesty and integrity that are the hallmark of her second term in office, Silverstein hoodwinked the press with yet another of her secret pacts, appearing before the cameras to announce yet another done deal before the community knew anything about it or had the time to clarify and verify the “facts” presented by the alderman and her supporters. The so-called “community meeting” was devoid of community input except from those who would profit from the temple, absent any concern for its impact on nearby residents, and already set for approval by a complacent Zoning Board of Appeals whose members understand that their job is to rubber-stamp whatever the powerful want.

And the players here are powerful.

There’s the alderman, a woman whose sole goal is to keep herself in power. Every action she takes reveals her basic contempt for the democratic process and the constituents she is supposed to represent. As noted last week, she was present at another “community meeting” that no one knew about, and that meeting assessed certain property owners an extra 1.5% in taxes to support the businesses of the same people backing the Hindu temple.  Her energies are devoted to ensuring outcomes that benefit special interests. The deceits employed in support of the temple proposal included inviting to the “community meeting” only people whose support was already guaranteed, and pretending that the dozen alleged community members present at the “community” meeting represent  our neighborhood of 73,000 souls, most of whom had no idea  that such a venture had been proposed. But that’s Silverstein:  The decision’s been made, the ZBA has its marching orders. Too bad for the community.

Then there are the business interests behind this project. The primary reason for building this temple is commercial rather than spiritual. The Ganesh Temple of Chicago, located at 2545 West Devon in the one-story building that used to house the Republic National Bank, is owned by the Shewakramani family, which owns several businesses on Devon, including Regal Jewels and Sari Sapne, as well as several buildings along the street. One Shewakramani family member said of the temple that it was expected to help struggling businesses on Devon by drawing tourists and outsiders who’ll want to see the beautiful building. Exactly. It’s meant to be a tourist attraction.

Other families with multiple businesses on the street also stand to profit from the temple’s presence.

Rushing this project (building is set to start in Spring) without real community input and impact studies is insulting to residents, who have been entirely shut out of the process. Again. What exactly are the alderman and the temple’s proponents afraid of? Is it that impact studies would reveal what a bad idea a temple is in this location? And it is a bad idea: it would increase traffic, fail to provide adequate parking, remove yet another commercial building from the property tax rolls, and impose serious environmental damage on both residential and commercial buildings in the area.  It won’t do much for the quality of life of nearby residents, either. The temple’s owners don’t care about any of that. Neither does Silverstein. There will be no discussion.

There’s also the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), whose current five-member Board is appointed by the Mayor and owes allegiance to political sponsors with a vested interest in keeping the City’s power structure happy and intact. Silverstein is one of Emanuel’s most reliable votes, so the ZBA will approve this temple because she wants it. There will be no impact studies because uncomfortable questions might be raised and it’s not the ZBA’s purpose to consider zoning changes in the context of anything except what Silverstein wants. The ZBA is there to help Debra win the 2019 election, and the temple is but one step in her campaign.

Just for fun, let’s consider the temple’s impact on parking and traffic. It doesn’t make a difference what we think, anyway, since the alderman and the Shewakramani family have already made their deal.

The temple’s proponents claim that only about 150 people per day (1,050 per week) will use the temple, although they did not offer specific on how they know this. They estimate that one-third of worshippers will walk to the temple, while the remaining 100 users will share a dozen parking spaces behind the temple and 30 reserved spaces in the Rockwell Street parking garage. Temple proponents did not say how many of the 12 spaces would be reserved for temple staff. Let’s assume that seven of the spaces behind the building will be for worshippers, plus the 30 spaces at the Rockwell garage. That still leaves 63 vehicles per day (or 441 per week) without parking. Where will they go? Their drivers won’t pay for parking, that’s for sure, so they’ll park on residential streets or in crosswalks or bus stops, as they do now. Silverstein and the temple owners don’t care. And if lots of tourists come? Good for business. Never mind the residents. Imagine another 100 vehicles per day on Devon.

The impact on traffic will also be ignored. The streetscape has so narrowed Devon that traffic jams are worse than ever, sending vehicles into the east-west alleys, especially during rush hours. Because of the indifference Indian shoppers display toward neighborhood residents and bus riders, it is common for traffic to be held up because shoppers are parked in bus stops and bus passengers—including those in wheelchairs and the elderly struggling with canes and walkers– must board and exit buses in the middle of the street. Shoppers also double-park to load their vehicles and don’t care who’s inconvenienced or how long the street is blocked. The last thing residents living close to Devon need is for an additional 100 vehicles to be clogging the streets and alleys looking for free parking.

Unlike the community at large, the attorney for the temple was invited to the announcement and said of West Ridge, “This is one of the great neighborhoods in Chicago in that it is probably one of the most multi-cultural neighborhoods that we have in the city, and we want to make sure everyone in the community is represented.”

You’d think she and her clients would know that the sham of a meeting they held as well as the exclusionary retailing they practice pretty much exclude “everyone.”  Oops! Of course they know. They don’t care any more than the alderman does.

As most residents are aware, but outsiders to the community are not, Devon used to be the main business artery of a thriving, multiethnic community, but the retailing takeover from Western to California by Indian merchants has left 80% of the neighborhood with no reason to shop there. Except for its many small groceries and large supermarkets, Devon offers only Indian goods for Indian customers (and tourists) and has caused the neighborhood to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in retail sales annually as residents buy clothing, shoes, toys, household, and other items in other neighborhoods.

The temple is merely the latest in a series of gimmicks designed to bring business to Devon Avenue. As a business draw, it, too, will fail. The business model is not sustainable. There simply aren’t enough Indian customers in the area–Indians are barely 20% of the ward–to support the overabundance of Indian businesses, and tourists have too many other choices –beautiful modern malls and suburban shopping areas—to come to Devon. Years ago, it was the place to shop for everything Indian, but that was before the Internet, before the Indian community began to disperse to the suburbs, and before other Indian shopping areas were developed. Market saturation has killed the available market.

It’s pointless to try to explain to the Indian business owners that what would revitalize Devon is a variety of stores and restaurants reflecting the neighborhood’s many ethnicities, which, taken together, vastly outnumber the Indian population. They don’t want to hear it. They want the eight blocks from Western west to California exclusively for themselves and are prepared to turn the neighborhood into a freak show if it will bring in tourists. Look—a woman in a burka! Over there—an African woman in a turban! That man’s wearing a sarong! There’ s a sign for camel milk –I gotta get a picture!

I saw lots of people take pictures in front of the camel milk sign, but I never saw any one of those people actually shopping. Unless you’re in the market for suitcases, saris, cell phones, or cucumbers, there’s nothing to buy.  Tourists may look at the gold jewelry and high-end bridal finery, but it’s too ethno-specific for the wider market. They may photograph it, but they don’t buy it.

One family member who acted as spokesperson for the temple said that ”… something [is] missing in this community that really needs to bring people together.” Well, yes. People who shop together get to know one another, become friends, and build community. Their money remains in and flows throughout the neighborhood in what’s known as the “multiplier.” What that means is that some of the money spent on goods and services is paid to business employees who spend some of their income on lunches, goods, and services from other neighborhood stores, thus creating profits and jobs in the community. It’s a simple economic truth: the longer a dollar stays in the neighborhood, the more economic good it does.

But the Indian way of doing business drains the community’s wealth. There’s the fact that more than 50% of all businesses on Devon have fewer than 2 employees, and most of those have only one; there’s the fact that many of these family businesses do not put spouses, sons and daughters, or cousins on the payroll when they watch the store for a few hours a few times a week, thus costing the City, State, and Federal governments payroll and income taxes. Some businesses appear to be little more than tax dodges, rarely open for business, apparently meant to offset income from other jobs and investments. Many businesses are unlicensed. Few are profitable, turnover is high, and business failure rampant.

Indian businesses were welcomed as part of the neighborhood when the first Indian store opened more than forty years ago, but Indian business interests did not want merely to be represented in the mix of ethnicities that is West Ridge. They wanted the whole street and drove out all non-Indian businesses from Western to California. Further, Indian business interests now own most of the buildings in that area. I’ve always found it interesting that storefronts and buildings remain vacant for months—even years—until Indian businesses move in. If some other ethnic group owned all the properties in a given area, and no Indian business ever opened, you can bet the issue of ethnic bias or preference or outright discrimination would be raised. Why isn’t that the case here? The situation is ripe for investigation.

There are plenty of reasons not to rush this temple project. Business development cannot proceed in isolation from residential concerns. An alderman sensitive to her constituents would understand this. Not Silverstein. She understands power and how to use it to benefit other powerful people.

At the private announcement, Silverstein boasted about her “pride” in Devon’s “diversity.” That’s the same word employed by the Shewakramani family and its lawyer.

Ah, diversity. That’s why all of Devon—not to mention the entire neighborhood—has come to be known as Little India.

Try this: tell someone you’re from West Ridge. After they ask, “New Jersey?” tell them you mean West Rogers Park. Count how many people ask some variation of “Isn’t that Little India?”

So what does it all mean?

Powerful business interests will be permitted to remove a commercial building from the property tax rolls and replace it with a tourist attraction masquerading as a religious institution. This will force residents to pay more when the next property tax increase rolls around. And it’s coming sooner than many think: Rahm’s been busy on secret projects, too.

No other site will be considered for the temple because its purpose is to attract customers to Devon’s businesses.

The alderman orchestrated a fraudulent “community meeting” to legitimize a deal reached in secrecy with special interests. She’s done this before. She’s good at spin and knows how to get her message to the media before the whole picture emerges and the other side can be heard.

So far, she’s shut the community out of discussions on the new library and held a sham community meeting at which generic “renderings” of possible rooms were presented and every question was answered with “that’s still on the table” or some variant thereof. Despite her promises that the community will have input, the RFP for the new building was released at close of business on December 9. All proposals are due by 11 a.m. December 23. Silverstein hasn’t announced that yet. Don’t wait for her to do so. It’s a secret.

There’s lots of interest in the old library site, but the alderman has nothing to say yet. It’s a City building, and could be used for a long-awaited cultural arts center for West Ridge. You can bet plans are already being formulated by Silverstein and the right power interests. You can expect that those interests will not include input from the community at large.

The bogus park with no playground. The library-senior citizen complex on the fast-track for completion in 18 months, right in time for municipal elections. The gift of a Hindi temple, consequences be damned.

A little something for everybody.

The 2019 aldermanic campaign has begun.

SSA #43 Tax Levy — and a Two-Minute Meeting

SSA #43, the Special Services Area taxing district that adds an extra 1.5% property tax levy to real estate on Devon from Kedzie to Damen and on Western from Granville to Arthur, received City Council approval for its 2017 levy on November 15, 2016.

By law, there was to be a public meeting about the increase before the budget was approved, but I was unable to uncover any evidence of either the notice or the meeting so I e-mailed the West Ridge Chamber of Commerce for the meeting date and the name of the paper(s) where the notice was published. I have yet to receive a response, the Chamber no doubt busy planning its next business-building children’s event.

However, on Monday, November 28, Chamber personnel posted the “Minutes” of a purported “Community Meeting Regarding the Budget Levy Increase” allegedly held on October 27.  According to these “Minutes,” “Meeting was called to order at 6:10 p.m. No community members attended and no questions were presented. Meeting was adjourned at 6:12 p.m.”  The alderman is listed as present.

Interestingly, the Minutes of the SSA’s October 27 regular meeting were also posted on November 28. That meeting was also “called to order at 6:10 p.m.” but not adjourned until 6:56 p.m. So it appear that the two meetings were held simultaneously. I’m sure this will be corrected. The devil is always in the details.

Still no word on where the legally-required notices for the legally-required meeting  were published. This sure seems like  yet another example of the contempt the powers-that-be have for neighborhood residents and the concept of transparency in government.

The meeting was also attended by Mike Parella, who was otherwise unidentified and whose presence was unexplained.There is a Project Coordinator with the City’s Department of Planning & Development by the same name. Maybe he was there to witness the neighborhood’s indifference to the alderman’s way of doing business. Maybe the lack of community presence was taken as confidence in her vision.  Or maybe the dismal state of the neighborhood’s main shopping district has been noticed by City honchos who are finally helping the alderman with her six-years-in-the-making-and-yet-to-be-released “spirited economic development plan.” Let’s hope so. Residents have been unable to connect with her on the issue.

The SSA’s budget is stated in the ordinance (SO2016-7364), which can be found by searching the City Clerk’s Web site. It’s a lengthy document, and contains two separate applications and budgets, one for the Chamber and the other for the new “sole service provider,” the Rogers Park Business Alliance. The ordinance was amended to make the Business Alliance rather than the Chamber the service provider.

Note how the monies are budgeted.

Most of it (more than $270,000) goes to “Public Way Aesthetics,” the primary job apparently being cleaning-up after the litterers, spitters, and food-tossers who shop on Devon and don’t care about dirtying the neighborhood.

Rice Computer Services is to be paid $4,000 for repair and maintenance of the Big Belly trashcans.

“Customer attraction” is budgeted at $54,000; less than half that sum ($25,000) is earmarked for “Safety Programs,” and only $12,000 will be invested in business development. Mixed-up priorities?

“Sustainability and Public Places” gets $8,000. Perhaps that will result in an investment in signage, such as “No Spitting” or “No Parking in Bus Lanes” or “Parking in Crosswalks Prohibited.”  Perhaps the presence of uniformed police or Revenue Department personnel writing tickets would also be effective deterrents.

No 50th Ward businesses landed service contracts. Instead, two of the six subcontractors listed by the Business Alliance are from outside Chicago, and one is in Maryland. Three are from other neighborhoods. Why hire a $16,000 accountant from Skokie when there are many accountants in the Ward? No local businesses can make street banners (to be provided by a company in Blue Island at a cost of $10,000) or provide landscaping and holiday decorations ($25,000 to a business in Rockville, Maryland)?

Of course, there has to be a consultant, paid $30,000; at least the business is in the City, as is the $20,000 snow shoveler and the $4,000 auditor; the latter is located in Edgewater.

All fees are estimated.

Stealth taxes. Secret, two-minute meetings. Services from vendors outside the Ward.

The Silverstein way.