The Groundbreaking Non-Event

It was over in the blink of an eye. And if you blinked, you missed it.

The groundbreaking for Park 526 took exactly 2 seconds. The rest of the time was spent waiting for the Mayor.

It was kind of comical. There were more camera trucks on the sidewalk than residents in the park-to-be. After a long wait in high winds, residents saw the Mayor, surrounded by an entourage including the alderman but not Ira, coming down the long walkway to the far end of the vacant lot that will become the park. He shook hands with three or four people and then walked directly to a mound of dirt near the center of the area, the camera crews lined up on its other side. The Mayor, the alderman, and a couple of other people picked up shovels, smiled into the cameras, then dropped the shovels and walked away, leaving stunned residents still walking to the side of the mound to  take their own pictures. But before they could see what was happening, it was over. No welcome, no speeches, no honored guests introduced.

Groundbreaking accomplished, the Mayor and his entourage walked away. The alderman posed for pictures. Sirens screaming, the Mayor left the neighborhood.

Watching this non-event, it occurred to me that the reason the alderman had not informed the neighborhood about it earlier is that she didn’t know when it would occur. The groundbreaking was clearly tied to the mayor’s schedule. I’ll bet she learned on Tuesday morning that the Mayor could give her 3 minutes on Wednesday afternoon.

And that’s how long he stayed.

I can hardly wait for the groundbreaking for the new library.

 

 

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The Groundbreaking for Park 526

The alderman sent out a notice yesterday afternoon that the official groundbreaking for Park 526 at Devon & McCormick would take place today. Yes, today, at 2:00 p.m. As one resident commented to me, you’d think the alderman would know about such an event well in advance so she could notify the community earlier. Well, yes, you would. I figure that Ira must be back in town. Her office grinds to a halt when he’s in Springfield.

On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that our disinterested alderman simply wasn’t aware that the groundbreaking had been scheduled.

In any event, her announcement included a drawing of the park that differs from the one she presented months ago. The Arboretum greeting visitors at Devon has been modified, and the three benches formerly along the pathway are not in evidence. The two fitness stations have been moved, and the “passive green space” looks more like an athletic field, its southwest end free of trees and shrubbery. There’s no sight of the fence on the western border that is so clear on the original drawing.

No word yet on an official name, although I’m sure the alderman has already selected it; “Park 526” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

Of course, we won’t know what we’re getting until we have it. The alderman’s penchant for secrecy guarantees that nobody will know anything about how this turns out until the ribbon-cutting, which will occur just in time for the 2019 election campaign. Between the park and the new library, the alderman will be able to claim two major building projects on opposite ends of the ward–just in time to point them out to voters. It worked after the first term.

But will it work again?

Park 526

Last night’s meeting at the alderman’s office about our newest park, Park 526, was very informative. As you can see from the rendering available at the meeting, the former “eyesore” at Devon and McCormick will become a beautiful park open to the public around this time next year. Park 526 Rendering

Current plans do not include a playground. Instead, the park is envisioned as a quiet space at the western gateway to West Ridge. It continues the existing bike path along the waterway, and includes a walking trail with three benches for rest stops. There will be a small hill and a water fountain, with open space for picnics on the grass. The open space is not meant for organized league sports, although programming for the park has yet to be determined. It’s possible that some families will choose to use the space for soccer, for example.

Native trees will grace the north entrance, and a decorative four-foot fence will enclose the space, with entry and exit portals on the north and sound ends of the park. t’s believed that urrent lighting should prove sufficient for the space. There will be some exercise stations, similar to what currently exists at Warren Park, but no furniture other than the benches due to concerns about vandalism and theft. Because the park will not have any staff, there will be no toilet facilities.

At some point a pedestrian-biker bridge will be built across Devon so walkers and riders will not have to cross the busy highway. There are currently ten parking spaces across Devon near the canoe launch; it is expected that no more than a couple of spaces will be added. It’s expected that shoppers at Home Depot and Lincoln Village who decide to stop at the park will be able to remain in the shopping center parking lots.

The next steps include hiring engineering services, obtaining permits, and obtaining work bids over the Fall and Winter of 2016-2017, with work set to begin in Spring. The alderman was able to make $600,000 in TIF funds available for the park, and Banner Storage, which will turn the theater into a storage facility on the park’s south border, promised to contribute $10,000 for playground equipment. However, it was stated several times that Park 526 is envisioned as a “passive park,” so the question of attractions for children is unsettled.

The car wash has been demolished and Banner is still in the process of obtaining permits for its building. The Chicago Park District has a 66-year, perpetually-renewable lease on the new park.

It will, of course, at some point need a name other than “Park 526.” Perhaps neighborhood school children could be involved in choosing a name. I think it would be nice if the park were named for Bernie Stone, our longest-serving alderman, or Rabbi Wolf, who made the park possible.

It will be a nice addition to the neighborhood.

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).

 

2015 Year in Review – Part II

This is the second part of the month-by-month listing of events omitted from the alderman’s 2015 year-end mailer and newsletters. Events from January through June were published on January 13.

July
2906-10 West Devon Lawsuit

  • Ccourt hearing cancelled
  • Defendant-Owner not yet served
  • Two more defendants added to suit (KJS Properties LLC and Centrue Bank)

Devon Community Market

  • Off to strong start, with superb performances from the dancers of Performing Arts Limited and Music House Academy of Music and Dance
  • Good selection of vendors

Town Hall Meeting

  • Alderman hosts annual meeting with constituents
  • Speakers from City government and local CAPS office address residents’ concerns about rats, flooding, crime, and other problems
  • Alderman introduces speakers. but contributes little to discussion
  • Some of ward’s most affluent residents express dismay over presence of homeless people walking on streets and blocking access to parking garage driveways as well as having cell phones (i.e., folks living under a bridge in Lincolnwood not quite poor enough); police action requested
    • Stunning lack of compassion for fellow human beings leads to involvement of social workers, who relocate homeless people to shelters, out of sight of offended well-to-do residents

August
2906-10 West Devon

  • Court hearing cancelled
  • Defendant-Owner served August 27, after hearing date

Devon Community Market

  • Annual slide into irrelevance begins as customers and vendors fail to show up

Medical Marijuana Dispensary

  • Alderman hosts community meeting with Bob Kingsley, owner of Green Gate Compassion Center, who outlines plans for MMD and engages residents in discussion
  • Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) votes 2-1 to grant tentative approval to Green Gate Compassion Center
  • Board member Sheila O’Grady, former chief of staff for Mayor Richard M. Daley, absent; will vote later

India Day

  • Organizers set up performance area six feet from residential housing; hours of loud, screeching entertainment force nearby residents from homes
  • Organizers once again fail to meet City requirements for public performance events
    • fail to notify nearby residents in advance of proposed concert
      • residents denied opportunity to object to rock concert-level loudness of musical performances
    • fail to notify residents of street closures
      • street signs not installed until late afternoon
      • street signs not properly placed, permitting traffic to enter Washtenaw at Arthur but not to exit except through east-west alleys
    • fail to obtain permit to exceed City’s noise regulations

 LEARN Coalition

  • Coalition launched to begin process of fundraising and site selection for new Northtown library
    • Founding groups include West Ridge Chamber of Commerce, North Boundary Home Owners League, Rogers Park Business Alliance, West Rogers Park Community Organization, and Jewish Community Council
    • Official name is Library Enhancement and Renovation of Northtown (LEARN)

September
Friends of the Northtown Library

  • Group organized by Pete Sifnotis to raise funds to support library programs
  • First meeting plans two-day book sale to benefit library

Medical Marijuana Dispensary

  • ZBA Board member Sheila O’Grady votes against MMD; zoning change denied
  • ZBA not at full strength; one position unfilled; 2-2 tie vote appealed by Green Gate lawyer
  • Pot bust in Warren Park at 4 p.m., when and where children play; three adults, two teenagers, several pipes, and bag of drugs taken into police custody
    • Police at park because of report of man with handgun

Economic Development News

  • Building leveled at Pratt & Western
  • Alderman announces she knows nothing about site plans

October
2906-10 West Devon

  • Various affidavits and summonses issued
  • Case returned to management call

Devon Community Market

  • Market Manager holds community meeting to discuss reorganization
  • Six residents attend

 Devon Streetscape

  • Phase 3 of streetscape (Western to Rockwell) completed without fanfare
    • No ribbon-cutting, cameras, or aldermanic presence marks occasion
    • Alderman schedules no appearance by or pictures with Mayor enmeshed in Laquan McDonald scandal

Devon Arts Festival

  • Collaborative Palette Project organized by Richard Trumbo, owner of Music House, as part of Chicago Artists Month
  • Residents enjoy collaborative art projects and musical entertainment
  • Arts celebration expected to become annual community event

November
In Re Estate of McDonald

  • Alderman announces she “watched in disbelief the video of the shooting death of Laquan McDonald….”
  • Now believes “…there needs to be a more detailed investigation…”
  • Now agrees “…that the U.S. Justice Department [should] intervene”
  • Does not refer to nor explain her April vote to pay McDonald family hush money to make matter go away

Devon Community Market

  • Market Manager tells me market must remain on Devon (within SSA district), retain current name, and remain in current parking lot location
    • Who made boneheaded decision not stated

2906-10 West Devon

  • All parties finally served
  • Lawyer for defendants files appearances
  • Court hearings to be determined

Friends of the Northtown Library

  • Friends group hosts successful two-day book sale
  • Raises more than $1,000 to support library programming

 Ward Committeeman Election

  • Important unpaid position responsible for overseeing integrity of elections
  • George Milkowski is Green Party candidate for committeeman
  • Pete Sifnotis is Republican candidate for committeeman
  • Alderman’s husband to run as Democratic candidate again; re-election guaranteed; family’s hold on power to continue
    • After February election, Silverstein family pettiness ensured precinct assistants disappear from some precincts that did not support alderman
    • Election judges in those precincts denied traditional largesse of morning coffee, lunch, and end-of-day candy as thank-you gift for long day
    • Bernie Stone’s example of grace in power lost on raptor-like Silversteins

December
Medical Marijuana Dispensary

  • Final rejection of 50th Ward MMD when newest commissioner, Jenner & Block attorney and Preckwinkle ally Blake Sercye, votes against economic development opportunity for 50th Ward
    • Alderman’s behind-the-scenes role unclear

Ward Committeeman Election

  • Silverstein in-law challenges Sifnotis nominating petitions
  • Sifnotis knocked off ballot

Economic Development News

  • Another dreary holiday season on Devon marked by absence of holiday decorations and seasonal joy
    • Sparse strings of lights wound around bare light poles from Maplewood to Rockwell and Mozart to Sacramento provide clue that holidays occurring
    • Lack of interest in acknowledging other people’s holidays continues to negatively affect sales performance of former premiere shopping district
    • Residents leave ward for holiday shopping and nonresidents shop elsewhere
  • Streetscape fails to attract shoppers

Goodbye to all that.

 

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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.

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.]

 

Lessons in Community Organizing

The least we can expect of groups purporting to represent the community is that they be honest and aboveboard, that they disclose any interests of any kind that they or their leaders have in proposed commercial developments or ward improvements, and that they tell the larger community the full truth.

There are several things the larger community can learn from the way the private deal for the Devon-McCormick development was handled.

  1. Beware of groups raising the specter of a criminal activity. Ask yourself if there’s any evidence to support those claims. Use FOIA to get police statistics. Look for a motive: Who stands to gain? The lesson of Watergate applies here: Follow the money.
  2. Become involved in what’s happening to our commercial spaces. We have lots of vacant lots, buildings, and stores. Who owns them? Have they been taken off the property tax rolls? Are nonprofit groups buying commercial properties to sell later at a profit while they reap years of gain from not paying property taxes?
  3. Are commercial properties being properly maintained? Many buildings on our commercial streets are in horrible disrepair. As I understand it, some of the TIF funds used for the street scape will also be used to improve building facades. Why are the taxpayers funding the improvement of privately-owned buildings, especially when those buildings are owned by wealthy suburbanites? In some cases, façade repair is less than walking-around money for these individuals. Why can’t they pay for their own property upkeep? Has it become customary for business owners to expect handouts from the taxpayers for their business properties while they live in luxury in the suburbs?
  4. Demand that groups purporting to speak for the community be held accountable. Demand full disclosure of all deals put forth in the interests of community improvement. Who’s going to make money if a so-called improvement goes forward? Is the community receiving full information?  How long has this been in the works? What promises have been made? To whom?  By whom? Have there been any political contributions? What political influence has been brought to bear on the desired outcome? At what point in the process are we? Is the community being brought in at the beginning, or are we merely attending meetings to give the illusion of input and to provide legitimacy to a done deal?
  5. Be savvy about press coverage. Don’t believe everything you read. Was the “reporter” present at the event? Was information funneled to the reporter by parties interested in shaping the story and affecting the outcome? What information was omitted? How soon after a community meeting does the first press coverage appear? Does it feel too close for comfort? Were there details revealed in press coverage that weren’t stated at the meeting? Who provided those details? Was it the same person who spoke at the meeting? Why weren’t the details provided when the community was present?

The kind of backroom deal that occurred with the Devon-McCormick redevelopment should not be permitted to happen again.

West Ridge: No Cultural Institutions, Lots of Storage

The lies and deception about “redeveloping” the commercial property at Devon and McCormick continue. Pick up a copy of this week’s News-Star and read all about how the audience “cheered” the idea of yet another storage facility in the neighborhood. In a front-page story with more inaccuracies than truth, Ronald Roenigk breathlessly reported how happy all the neighbors are that the MWRD is giving us a park in exchange for a storage facility almost no one wants..

The lie about the cheering is especially galling. It’s not just that no such cheer occurred. It’s that the opposite happened: There was an overwhelming sense of disappointment in the room, especially because, at the top of the meeting, Richard Trumbo, owner of Music House, Academy of Music and Dance, spoke of the need for a neighborhood cultural center and suggested the theater be repurposed to that end, a suggestion that had much support in the crowd and in social media.

But the Cheder Luubavitch Hebrew Day School and the JCC had other plans, they had all the pieces in place before they came to the community, and they hid their true intent throughout the evening. The so-called “community meeting” was merely an attempt to create legitimacy and gloss over the fact that the community had been shut out in favor of a deal that enriched the school and private individuals at the community’s expense.

To call school officials and the JCCWRP duplicitous is an understatement. Despite questions about who owned the property, no one present, including Rabbi Wolf, the school’s executive director, and other men who described themselves as “representatives” of the owner, would say who that owner was. Nor were they forthcoming about the kind of business they were selling to. It did not become clear until late in the meeting that the theater was to become a storage facility, and it was like pulling teeth to get that information from those in the know.

It was not until two days after the meeting, on Thursday, when DNA Chicago published an interview quoting Rabbi Wolf,  that the community learned what was really going to happen. Many people began looking at the school’s stewardship of the property, and found that, since 2005, when the school bought the theater, it was removed from the property tax rolls. Back taxes on the car wash amount to nearly $6,000. The theater was not then the eyesore that it is now, and the school’s claim that it was unable to secure the property is ludicrous.

It’s important to note that the storage facility will pay property taxes but will not create jobs for the community. As with most storage facilities, this one will have one or two employees. It’s a growth industry for owners, but not for communities seeking job opportunities for residents.

Of course, Ald. Silverstein has never shown the slightest interest in developing an economic plan for West Ridge. She won re-election by not engaging with community residents or her challengers. She chose not to address the blocks of store vacancies, the board-ups, and the vacant lots. The sad fact is that when all you can point to as economic development is a couple of discount dress stores and an ice cream shop, you welcome the idea of storage monoliths as progress. No jobs, but hulking new buildings. We aren’t creating viable and sustainable business districts,  we’re filling storefronts and vacant lots with businesses that do nothing to enrich the community.

I attended that Tuesday meeting. There was no “general applause” greeting the announcement that a park would be created, because there was no such announcement. What David St. Pierre, the MWRD Executive Director, agreed to do was tear up the asphalt in the abandoned parking lot to create a green space IF that was what the community wants. Mr. Roenigk states that “some say that a vacant movie theater and car wash at the location are safety hazards as they attract vandals, graffiti taggers, and burglars almost daily.”  This is the story put forth by the JCC and Rabbi Wolf. The fact is that the school failed to properly secure the building during its 10-year ownership. Reports of daily vandalism and burglaries or burglary attempts are not substantiated by “almost daily” police reports.

The story claims that a letter, purportedly signed by “hundreds of rabbis and community leaders,” was sent to MWRD in December 2014 “…demanding an end to policies that have allowed a blighted and abandoned property to degrade the area,…and quashing efforts aimed at promoting commercial redevelop,ment.” That letter has not been made public, so the signature count could not be verified. In a ward of 55,000 residents, with only a couple of civic or activist organizations and a high percentage of non-English-speakers who know nothing about commercial development  in the neighborhood, the notion that “hundreds of rabbis and community leaders” could be found to sign such a letter is preposterous.

Roenigk also states that the parking lot is vaued at $8 million zoned as commercial space, and $2 million zoned as residential. What was actually said was different. The JCCWRP claimed the space had been valued at $8 million; Mr. St. Pierre said he thought that figure was too high, and that $2 million was accurate. The parking lot is currently zoned as residential.

Howard Rieger, president of the JCC, is quoted as wanting to “transform…the blight into a welcoming gateway” to West Ridge. Considering that we now have a 1200-unit storage facility also owned by Banner Storage Group across the street from the east boundary of the ward, and will now have this ugly monstrosity at the west boundary, what kind of welcome are we extending? [Banner’s storage facility at Devon and Ridge is being built next to the McDonald’s on the east side of Ridge, which is now part of the 40th Ward.] Public Storage alone has 17 locations within six miles of the 60645 Zip Code. There is a storage facility at California and Peterson. There are several storage facilities just across McCormick in Lincolnwood. There’s talk of a third facility on Western. Soon there will be more storage units than people in West Ridge.

Roenigk closes his story by presenting a picture of happy residents thrilled by the idea of getting a park in exchange for a hulking storage facility, excitedly talking about plans for another meeting to discuss further plans. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most attendees left disappointed. Community input? A sham.  Other possibilities for the site?  Non-existent. A cultural center for the community? You must be joking.

This was a done deal before the community learned anything about it. Vital information was deliberately withheld from residents, although it appeared in an online newspaper AFTER the so-called community meeting. A second meeting will serve no useful purpose except to decide who will take responsibility for maintaining the park. Whether or not that group will also have to shovel the entire bridge and walkway connecting Kedzie to McCormick is also up for debate. It’s doubtful the MWRD will continue to do so.

I suggest we let the JCCWRP be the responsible party. They got what they wanted, now let them take care of it.

Storage Facility or Cultural Center?

I attended last night’s meeting about redevelopment plans for the southeast corner of Devon and McCormick. It’s not yet a done deal but it appears to be close, and the larger community needs to be involved quickly.

The proposal is simple: In exchange for green space where the abandoned parking lot now stands, developers will tear down the theater and the car wash and build a storage facility. The deal is contingent on turning the parking lot into green space. This will provide a park for the community and will also enhance the appearance of the proposed 3-story storage facility.

It was stated that once the parking lot is replaced with turf, the developers would close on the deal within 45 days. It will then be too late for community input. The removal of the asphalt is the key to the project. Because the storage facility is viewed as the only type of business that would not require parking, it’s considered by many to be the only option for redevelopment. Where the facility’s customers would park was not addressed.

The meeting was sponsored by the Jewish Community Council of West Rogers Park. David St. Pierre, the Executive Director of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD), provided an overview of the site and said that he is ready to do whatever the community wants. MWRD owns the land on which the parking lot sits. The theater and car wash sites are privately owned.

Mr. St. Pierre said that the parking site is zoned as residential, and that it was abandoned because a re-evaluation of the property some years ago made operating the parking lot “impractical.” The site was evaluated at either about $2 million (his figure) or $8 million (the JCCWRP figure).  Changing the zoning is not considered an option.

Early in the meeting, Richard Trumbo, owner of Music House, Academy of Music and Dance on Devon Avenue, spoke briefly but forcefully about the community’s need for a cultural center, and suggested that repurposing the theater would meet that need and fit well with the goals of the Chicago Cultural Plan. The theater has been allowed to deteriorate, so any re-use would depend on how much damage has been done to it through owner neglect.

There was a marked reluctance on the part of those in the know to state exactly what business would be opening if the developers prevail. The fact that it is a storage facility emerged relatively late in the meeting, and many in the audience didn’t like the idea. But many others repeated the mantra that anything would be better than the blight that’s there now.

In my opinion, it’s this kind of short-sighted thinking that’s led to the sorry state of shopping throughout the ward. Filling storefronts rather than building business districts is not the answer. Neither is development without a unifying vision. The site in question has been vacant for 10 years, and a few more months of discussion involving a true cross-section of the community won’t do any harm. There are concerns about crime, the buildings having been vandalized and broken into, but why the owners have not seen fit to maintain and secure the property was not addressed.

I’ve been told that another storage facility is being built on Western and have heard that a third site is also being considered. I don’t think the community is well served by having storage facilities as its only growth industry. We need business that will provide jobs and sales tax revenue. The Devon-McCormick site was referred to as a “gateway” to shopping for both Chicago and Lincolnwood. I would prefer that shoppers entering West Ridge from the north and west encounter a cultural center rather than a storage facility as their first glimpse of our community.

Responsibility for maintaining the green space may fall on the community, unless the Chicago Park District is willing and able to take it over. There is a meeting between JCCWRP leaders and park district officials later this week. Several concerned citizens spoke out against relying on the park district, which has cut back on services in recent years.

If the community were to take responsibility, there would be a nominal fee, perhaps $10 per year, so the community would in effect rent the space and be required to maintain it. One important question that was not addressed is whether the community would then be responsible for shoveling the bridge between Kedzie Avenue and McCormick in the winter. This is now the responsibility of MWRD.

Another meeting will be scheduled to address issues raised last night. Watch this space for more information. In the meantime, you might want to review both the Cultural Plan of Chicago  (here) and the offerings of Music House – Academy of Music and Dance (here).