Food Carts, Commercial Kitchens, and Politics

The City Council at its Thursday meeting voted to license food carts. The sponsor of the ordinance, 26th Ward Alderman Robert Maldonado, estimated that the move would create around 6,400 jobs and bring in several million dollars in sales tax revenue annually. The requirements are stiff: vendors must pay a $350 license fee every two years, have their carts professionally cleaned and serviced, ensure that carts have heating and refrigeration systems, and prepare their food in commercial kitchens. The user fee for the commercial kitchen tacks on another $300+.

The 50th Ward has a commercial kitchen, paid for with a grant from the City of Chicago. But the kitchen isn’t operational. It’s part of ZAM’s Hope, the community resource center run by former aldermanic candidate Zehra Quadri. The plan was to offer kitchen space and marketing advice to residents who wanted to turn family recipes into successful food businesses. A strong supporter of Ald. Bernie Stone, Quadri has had many funding problems since the Silversteins began running the 50th Ward. While Ira cut funding for many of her programs, Debra outdid herself in pettiness and vindictiveness after her February re-election.

Quadri needs a zoning change to allow her kitchen to operate. Silverstein refuses to provide Quadri with a letter that would allow Quadri to obtain that zoning change. As a result, a taxpayer-funded commercial kitchen sits unused. It could have offered much-needed help for food cart vendors and other food entrepreneurs in the 50th Ward, but the alderman won’t allow it. No political rival will be permitted to support entrepreneurs or contribute to economic development if Silverstein has anything to say about it. And, unfortunately, she does.

Silverstein’s economic development record since her re-election is nothing short of appalling. A proposed art center lost out to a storage facility. A medical marijuana dispensary that would have invested nearly $500,000 in property improvements AND hired neighborhood residents was not approved. A commercial kitchen that could have helped 50th Ward residents create successful, sustainable businesses was not allowed to open.

Silverstein 3, economic development 0.

And we’re only five months into her second term.

 

 

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Meeting to Discuss Medical Marijuana Dispensary

Tomorrow, Tuesday, August 11, at 6:30 p.m., Ald. Silverstein is hosting a community meeting with Bob Kingsley, the owner of the medical marijuana dispensary proposed for 6501 North Western Avenue. Some of the staff of the dispensary, the Green Gate Compassion Center, are also expected to attend.

Both supporters and opponents of the proposed dispensary are expected to turn out for a full discussion of issues related to the business. Among the issues expected to be raised are the facts that the business is cash-only, that it requires round-the-clock, seven-day-a-week security, and that it would be located next to Warren Park. The alderman has been clear that her opposition to the dispensary is based solely on its location next to a park where children play.

She has met privately with Mr. Kingsley over the summer to discuss her opposition. The community meeting is a result of those discussions.

It was revealed today by the Chicago Sun-Times that, as part of the state’s budgetary crisis, all seven state investigators charged with overseeing both the growers and the sellers of medical marijuana have been laid off.  Their contracts may be renewed once the budget battle has been settled but for now oversight will be handled by other staffers.
http://chicago.suntimes.com/news/7/71/861790/med-pot-police-unit-disbanded-amid-budget-impasse

Mr. Kingsley has said that he will hire neighborhood residents to staff the dispensary, especially the disabled and military veterans. The business will generate sales taxes. Mr. Kingsley’s proposal includes a full redevelopment of the site. Both the site renderings and a petition in support of the dispensary can be accessed here.

The Zoning Board of Appeals will be conducting a hearing on the proposed dispensary on August 21 at 2 p.m. in the City Council Chambers (second floor, City Hall). Any individuals who wish to speak before the Board may sign up before the meeting; sign-up sheets will be located in the back of the room. [This was the procedure at the first hearing, which was postponed until next week.]

The petition referred to above will be presented at that time.

Tuesday’s community meeting will take place at the Croatian Cultural Center, 2845 West Devon Avenue.

The Town Hall Meeting That Wasn’t

A true town hall meeting brings citizens together to discuss local issues, to try to reach consensus on important issues, to work together with local officials to resolve problems of concern to the community.

The alderman’s July 27 town hall meeting was misnamed. At best, it was a panel discussion moderated by the alderman during which a lucky few got to ask questions of various city and police officials.  At worst, it was a dog and pony show designed to satisfy the alderman’s burden of actually meeting with her constituents.

She began by acknowledging the presence of her husband and mother, naming her staff, and thanking them for their hard work.  [Ira’s presence at all ward meetings raises some interesting questions, since he apparently doesn’t attend meetings in the 40th Ward, also in his Illinois Senate district.]

“I like to have yearly community meetings to discuss issues in the ward,” she said, and noted that her two most important areas of concern since she was elected in 2011 have been public safety and constituent services.

And when she hears of an issue in the ward, she and her staff “immediately go into problem-solving mode.”  This ownership approach to issues suits her base, but not those in the ward who’d like to be part of the solution to its problems.

She then introduced Commissioner Charles Williams from the City’s Department of Streets & Sanitation, Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld of the Department of Transportation, local resident Gary Litherland, who handles public relations for the Chicago Department of Water Management, and Sgt. Shawn Sisk, representing the 24th District CAPS office. Each would make a short presentation and then respond to questions from the audience.

But first the alderman pointed to a large ward map displayed at the front of the room, and said it showed the many streets that have been resurfaced during her tenure, adding that she “personally drives” the ward’s streets, ranking them from best to worst. She did not say why she rather than the ward superintendent is performing that task. [FYI: ward superintendents are paid $70,000 – $111,000 per year; the alderman is paid $117,333.]

Valuable meeting time was wasted as the alderman read the dates, times, and locations of August’s ward events, instead of simply referring the audience to the ward calendar on her Web site.

Presentations were short and to the point. Commissioner Williams advised that his department would prefer that rat-baiting requests be made using the City’s online form rather than through 311 calls; this enables his staff to better track the requests.

With regard to the safety of Orthodox Jewish residents over the Sabbath, Sgt. Sisk said he had spoken with a rabbi from the Chicago Rabbinical Council on July 7, and that he was assured that it was permissible for those residents needing police or emergency assistance to use the telephone.

Sisk also advised that organizing block clubs and attending CAPS meeting will help with crime deterrence. He noted that he and another officer were distributing leaflets in one section of the ward, and he found “at least fifteen” homes he could have burglarized because residents had failed to lock doors and close windows–common sense safety precautions.

Residents who find graffiti are asked to take photos of it as well as report it on the City’s online form. This is important–the police can review the photos and determine if the graffiti is gang-related, kids fooling around, or just plain vandalism. E-mail the photos to Graffitti@CAPS24.org.

Then it was time for audience Q&A, and the issues raised were a lesson in how well the alderman knows her supporters.

The 50th Ward has recently been home to three homicides, including drive-by shootings. Thugs who live here make headlines being arrested for murder and serious crimes committed in other neighborhoods. The police have issued alerts for burglaries. Yet the first question from the audience came from affluent condo owners upset at being approached by panhandlers.

Horrors! They’ve crossed the bridge! They’re on our streets, asking for money! They walk in the middle of the street and one can’t turn into the driveways at Winston Towers! And it gets worse–they have cell phones!

The real crime, of course, is homelessness. People who live in condos are threatened by the less fortunate who live under bridges. People with cable, Internet, and smart phones don’t like the idea that panhandlers have access to emergency services, to the social service agencies that are struggling to get them off the streets, or to the job placement offices that might help them get back on their feet. No such compassion. They aren’t poor enough, with those government-issued cell phones that give them a measure of security and a sense that they, too, have value.

Useful suggestions were made: don’t give them any money and they’ll go away. Call the police. Know which corner they’re causing a problem on, because there are various jurisdictions in the area–Skokie, Lincolnwood, the 24th and 17th police districts. But keep calling. And be sure to ask to sign as a co-complainant when the police make an arrest. You’ll have to take time to go to court, but in time you will clear the streets and underpasses of those life didn’t bless as it blessed you.

There were many questions and comments about the Eid fireworks. This is the second year that neighborhood residents were subjected to overnight explosions lasting hours, and neighbors wanted to know why it happened again and why the police were unable to stop it. One woman said that when she called, she was told that the alderman had ordered that the police not intervene, a charge that the alderman vehemently denied.

There were complaints about heavy crowds in the street outside the mosque on Campbell, a residential street. What the responses boiled down to was that the police did the best they could. Sisk did suggest that perhaps some discussions could be initiated with mosque leadership before next year’s celebrations. He could not answer why that had not been done this year.

To be fair, it was clear he and the police were the designated scapegoats for the alderman’s failure to use her office to negotiate a peaceful and respectful way for our Muslim neighbors to celebrate the end of Ramadan. That failure indefensible, she said nothing.

There were questions about clogged sewers and standing water. Litherland said that, as sewers are being replaced and relined, they are being fitted with filters that slow  drainage; this is why there’s standing water in streets and alleys. He added that it is not considered a problem if water is standing for an hour or so, but is a concern if the water remains after 3-4 hours. In that case, a 311 call is in order. One resident noted that one reason for the pooling is that alley grades are not level; the alleys have sunk while the garages remain at grade, and this creates a natural pool for rainwater.

He could have added that the grooves cut into the alleys to permit drainage were in many cases paved over, wholly or partly, during the pre-election constituent services blitz.

The final question concerned the now-vacant lot at Pratt & Western. The alderman said that the building was torn down because it was unstable. There are no current plans for development. The property has been downzoned, and a community meeting will be required before any development can occur there. The same is true for the site at Western and Granville.

The meeting was carefully structured to minimize the alderman’s participation and avoid serious issues, like school funding losses, property tax increases, and the City’s budget and pension problems. Those important issues will apparently have to wait until 2016.

What’s an Eyesore?

There’s a hearing tomorrow, July 8, at 2 p.m., in Courtroom 1107 at the Daley Center about the building at 2906-10 West Devon Avenue. The City filed suit on June 12 and a lis pendens notice on June 22, meaning the owner has been notified that there is now a legal claim against the property that could affect both the title and the property’s value. The building in question formerly housed Rosenblum’s World of Judaica, which closed in 2010 after 37 years at that location. DSC_05751083Alderman Silverstein informed the community  that the building has not been properly maintained by its owner and a City inspection revealed numerous code violations. She has therefore asked the City to force the owner of this “eyesore” to make the necessary repairs and rent the now-vacant storefronts.  The property is owned by Khalid J. Siddiqui. No problems are obvious in this recent photo.

She has taken no action against other, real eyesores, like the old Sheldon Cord Products building, that are clearly in far worse shape. The building has been vacant for years. One of the Ugliest Buildings on DevonIn April 2015, 2201 Devon LLC succeeded Schubert Development Partners LLC as owner. We’ll see whether this is merely an administrative change or will spell real improvement for the site. It’s hard to see how it could look any worse.

The board-up at the former dry cleaning shop just a short distance from the old Rosenblum’s is a horrible site. The wood is weather-beaten and warped, DSC_05771085and the addition of the American flag as a decoration on both the building and the oversize sign board hanging above the sidewalk make the building look even more decrepit as one moves closer. The wood is rotting at sidewalk level. It’s a dismal and depressing sight. The property is owned by Harrison-Ogden-Wolcott LLC according to CityData.com.

Then there’s this poorly maintained property across the street from the property the alderman is so concerned about. DSC_05761084It may be part of a medical office located next door. When the office is open it appears that both storefronts are connected. This property looks shabby and dirty and in need of immediate repair.

There are many more examples of buildings on Devon that are all but falling apart. The same can be said of commercial buildings throughout the ward. So why is the building at 2906-10 West Devon a problem, for whom, and why now?

It’s no secret that the Jewish Community Council has been working to restore the traditional Jewish shopping district that used to exist on the west end of Devon. But the alderman’s use of the term “eyesore” to describe the old Rosenblum’s site reminded me of the sudden push to sell the theater site at Devon & McCormick in March. Where that property was described as an eyesore and an attraction for criminals, this one is being described as an eyesore riddled with building code violations. In both cases urgent action was/is required and community participation invited.

We all know how that turned out.

The alderman’s actions also reminded me of the re-election stunt from last Fall when she gave the impression that she forced the sale of storefronts on Touhy Avenue that were also described as rundown. I learned from an informed reader that the property sale was already in process when the alderman decided to intervene. The sale was used in her advertising as evidence of her concern for economic development. The storefronts are still vacant.

I suspect that the Rosenblum’s site is nowhere near as bad as it’s made out to be. I also suspect that there’s probably already an interested buyer for the property. The pending lawsuit means the value of the property will decrease, because any buyer would become responsible for repairing the alleged defects. Wanna bet those will turn out to be minor if the right buyer comes along?

I welcome new business. The ward needs it. Our business districts are shabby, dirty, and filled with vacancies. I’d even welcome the alderman’s participation in this little drama if I could just believe she’s acting in the community’s best interests and not in the interests of those who know how the game is played. The goal may be to force Mr. Siddiqui out by playing hardball over minor violations, jeopardizing his title to the property and thus lowering its price for a buyer already waiting in the shadows.

The case number is 2015-M1-401751. No appearance has yet been filed by the defendants’ attorney(s).

In the meantime, let’s help the alderman locate all the deteriorating storefronts in the ward that could use her influence with the City. Send your pictures to Ald. Silverstein at info@50thwardchicago.com.

Why Residents Are Plagued by Rats: Devon is Filthy

I am stunned by how dirty Devon Avenue is. How can the alderman and the merchants insist that Devon represents international shopping at its best when the street is so filthy? Several restaurants and stores on Devon have been temporarily closed in recent months because they failed to pass City inspections. Violations included everything from roach and rodent infestations to filthy food prep and storage areas.

Many of the pictures I took over the past three days are nauseating. Half-eaten food tossed in street excavations. Food debris left on newspaper boxes and safety cones, not to mention windowsills and plant boxes. Coffee and yogurt cups as well as beverage bottles tossed everywhere. The clincher was a filthy diaper left on pipes outside a sweet shop.

Last week I was walking on Devon when a merchant appeared at her door with a broom and a pile of trash from inside. She was about to sweep it into the street excavations. I see merchants sweep debris from their stores onto the sidewalks on Devon every week. A few days after our streets were swept a couple of weeks ago, the cleaning crew from Republic Bank showed up with leaf blowers and cleaned the parking lot and ATM by blowing the trash into the streets.

This behavior needs to stop. Those of us who live here–especially those of us who live immediately south and north of Devon–deserve better.

Here’s just a sample of what I found:

 

A new low in dirtiness. A loaded diaper is left atop pipes outside a sweet shop, Washtenaw north of Devon.

A new low in dirtiness. A loaded diaper is left atop pipes outside a sweet shop, Washtenaw north of Devon.

The new street furniture will encourage the dumping of even more garbage. The plant pots on Devon west of California are already filled with garbage.

The new street furniture will encourage the dumping of even more garbage. The plant pots on Devon west of California are already filled with garbage.

These black plastic trays hold merchandise when its delivered to stores, which remove the merchandise and dump the trays into the excavations for the streetscape. This kind of garbage is found I almost every street excavation on Devon.

These black plastic trays hold merchandise when it’s delivered to stores. Merchandise is removed and the trays are dumped into the street scape excavations. You can see this in almost every street excavation on Devon.

Another sweet shop, another mess.

Another sweet shop, another mess.

Why use a trash can when a safety cone works just as well?

Why use a trash can when a safety cone works just as well?

Aanother pig who decided to use a safety cone rather than a trashcan This was a couple of blocks from the first one.

Another pig who decided to use a safety cone rather than a trashcan This was a couple of blocks from the first one.

Alley behind Devon shops, Talman to Washtenaw.

Alley behind Devon shops, Talman to Washtenaw.

Garbage in parking lot and E-W alley between Campbell and Artesian.

Garbage in parking lot and E-W alley between Campbell and Artesian.

Rockwell, north of the E-W alley behind Devon. Residents who live closest to Devon see this and clean it every day. It's all from shoppers.

Rockwell, north of the E-W alley behind Devon. Residents who live closest to Devon see this and clean it every day. It’s all from shoppers.

Another sidewalk excavation used as a garbage dump.

Another sidewalk excavation used as a garbage dump.

Let’s Not Decide Together

DNA Info reported yesterday that the Norwood Park Chamber of Commerce will sponsor a community meeting so residents can learn about and discuss the proposed medical marijuana dispensary that would be located on Milwaukee Avenue. The 41st Ward’s new alderman, Anthony Napolitano, will attend, and told DNA Info that he would listen to both the residents and the Ward’s Zoning Advisory Board before deciding whether to support or oppose the dispensary. [He opposed it during the campaign.]

Imagine: An alderman willing to hold an open meeting with residents and the dispensary’s owners to discuss both sides of the argument for an MMD.

Contrast that with the behavior of Ald. Debra Silverstein in the 50th Ward. She simply declared her opposition to a medical marijuana dispensary and felt no need to tell her constituents why she opposed it. When residents sent e-mails to the ward office and complained on social media about her high-handedness, she backtracked and said she opposed the location, claiming she wanted to protect the ward’s children. The 50th Ward dispensary would be located next to Warren Park where, the alderman said, “hundreds of children” play.

Now she’s raised the fear of crime, an issue that has worked well for her in the past. Because banks and credit card companies will not accept payments for medical marijuana, it’s a cash-only business, and the alderman now says that this is the real issue. She is “not comfortable” with any business that requires 24/7 security, even though that security would be provided by off-duty law enforcement officers.

She has not, however, scheduled any community meetings where residents can meet the dispensary’s owner and discuss with him and the alderman the benefits and drawbacks of locating the dispensary on Western Avenue.

There’s no 50th Ward zoning advisory board, although Silverstein said during her 2011 campaign that she favored creating one. She has, as usual, failed to follow through. This is in keeping with her hands-off policy on economic development. The “spirited economic development plan” she promised during that same campaign has also failed to materialize. She rarely invites residents to open meetings to discuss community issues, unlike other north side aldermen. In the 50th Ward, the people’s business is conducted in secrecy.

It’s fair to say that while she favors community input and economic development, she has no real interest in either.

Because of the Chicago tradition that gives aldermen the final say on economic development in their wards, and the recent back-door maneuvering and packed-meeting decision on the Devon-McCormick theater site redevelopment, I suspect that no amount of community support will allow the dispensary to open on Western–or anyplace else in the 50th Ward.

It doesn’t mean we should give up the fight. It means we have to organize. Sign the petition in support of the MMD. Attend the May 28 hearing. Follow the money. Track her donations and expenditures. Hold her publicly accountable for her positions. You might also read this series of articles from the Chicago Tribune, written in 2008. It’s every bit as relevant today as it was seven years ago.

 

 

 

 

 

Petition in Support of Medical Marijuana Dispensary on Western Avenue

If you support the opening of a medical marijuana clinic at 6501 North Western Avenue, please sign the petition below. It will be delivered to the Zoning Board of Appeals at its May 28 meeting.

https://www.change.org/p/zoning-board-of-appeals-city-of-chicago-we-support-issuance-of-a-special-use-permit-that-would-allow-mr-bob-kingsley-to-open-420-windy-city-clinic-a-medical-marijuana-dispensary-at-6501-north-western-avenue-50th-ward-chicago?recruiter=96060430&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=facebook&utm_campaign=share_facebook_responsive&utm_term=des-md-bing-custom_msg&fb_ref=Default

A Further Explanation

The alderman has used her latest newsletter to further explain her position on the medical marijuana dispensary proposed for Western Avenue. She now claims that her “personal objection to this location is due to the unique security needs… required”  by the business. She says that she is “uncomfortable with any business that would need a fingerprint scanner and two armed guards being right next door to a park where hundreds of children play.” The alderman also notes that because credit card companies and banks currently do not recognize sales of medical marijuana, the business will be cash-only.

Regardless of the alderman’s opinion, the law does not prohibit this dispensary from opening next to Warren Park. If the alderman believes the law should be changed, then both she and her husband, State. Sen. Ira Silverstein, are in position to propose bills to that effect. So far, neither has done so.

According to a recent article by Jeremy Culver for WGEM in Quincy, Illinois, the state has yet to see a single dispensary open. State Rep. Lou Lang, who wrote Illinois’ medical marijuana bill, is quoted extensively by Culver. Lang notes that his bill provided for a four-year trial program and that nearly half that time is already gone. The state experienced some difficulties in establishing its regulations, and Lang notes that the longer it takes to set the program up, the more expensive the marijuana is likely to become. In the meantime, Illinois patients take their prescriptions elsewhere. Read the full article here.

The alderman has asked again that neighborhood residents appear at City Hall at 9 a.m. on May 28 for the hearing at the Zoning Board of Appeals. According to the City’s Web site, these meetings usually take place in the City Council chambers.

 

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.