Devon’s “Branding Campaign”

The alderman’s newsletter today asks for comments from the community on a branding campaign that it’s hoped will bring business to Devon Avenue. A project of the Special Services Area #43 (SSA #43), the Rogers Park Business Alliance, which administers the SSA, and the alderman, you can go to a meeting or take the online survey to give your opinion. I used the online survey. I don’t know that the community’s opinions will matter much, if at all.

It’s clear that lots of time, money, and effort have gone into the branding concept and its expression. But I believe a branding campaign is the wrong approach at this point. Shabby stores, so-so merchandise, vacancies and boarded-up buildings, too many grocery stores and cell phone stores, the absence of true diversity and real choices–these need to be remedied before we start promoting Devon as an international marketplace. The relentless campaigns of the past few years branding Devon as Little India have deprived the merchants east of Western and west of California of recognition and thus real opportunities to build their businesses; they have no representation on the SSA, and the proposed branding campaign doesn’t recognize them either.

I think the first priority is building a business district worth a marketing campaign.

This will be a problem given the alderman’s lack of interest in economic development and the fact that the SSA is run by and for the benefit of Indian business owners. I’ve been tracking the businesses on Devon since 2014, and in that time have found that buildings and storefronts remain vacant for months–even years–before yet another sari shop, cell phone store, or grocery opens. When I check the building ownership for these properties, I find that they are Indian-owned. It’s no accident that only Indian businesses are permitted to rent storefronts on that stretch of Devon.

Devon used to be known all over the City and suburbs for its magnificent retailing. The neighborhood had everything–dress shops, toy shops, restaurants, men’s clothing stores, shoe stores, kids clothing shops, a hobby shop, linen, barber, and beauty shops, Crawford’s Department Store, a stock brokerage, bakeries and cigar stores, among other retailing offerings. In 1974, when Patel Bros. opened its first grocery store on Devon, it was welcomed to the mix. But as Indo-Americans bought the properties along Devon, , only Indian businesses were permitted to rent the storefronts. Do the Indian owners discriminate against non-Indian tenants? Yes, they do. It’s clear, and it’s illegal. I’ve tracked it for too long to believe otherwise. And I’ve talked with at least one non-Indian prospective business owner who wasn’t able to rent.

Maybe the RPBA, the SSA, and the alderman can work on that.

Here’s another hint:

An international marketplace sells quality goods from around the world. Diversity is in the merchandise, not in the merchants.

Devon includes store owners from around the world, but their businesses–which could thrive and become successful–are doomed to failure because they do not get the support and assistance they need. Many  are woefully under-capitalized and need access to funding as well as basic marketing, merchandise display, advertising, and retailing skills.  Devon is not a road in some dusty village where a single store sells everything from milk to suitcases. It’s a middle-class neighborhood in Chicago, and middle class people do not patronize stores with dusty bags of rice in the windows, or sun-faded boxes. If the alderman, the RPBA, or the SSA really want to build a business district rather than promote Little India, they would contact the SBA, the City’s business development office, and the State of Illinois for assistance in creating such training and making such resources available to merchants in the entire SSA area  (Leavitt to Kedzie on Devon, Arthur to Granville on Western).

Creating a “branding campaign” for the current dreary array of vacancies and shabby little shops selling so-so merchandise is a mistake. Mislead people once and you won’t get a second chance.

Build a business district that’s truly remarkable and it will sell itself.

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“Between States” – The Chicago Architecture Foundation Project

The Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF)  invited West Ridge residents to be part of an exciting new experiment in urban design that will be showcased at CAF’s second Biennial Exhibit beginning in September and lasting through January 2018. The last such event, in 2015, drew 250,000 visitors to the Chicago Cultural Center, with another 250,000 attending CAF events in other venues throughout the City.

The theme of this year’s Biennial is “Between States,” that is, moving from one state of being to another. Every ward in the City of Chicago has ts own project, its own opportunity to shine. The project for the 50th Ward involved imagining new uses for a local strip mall.

Architect Jay Longo, a resident of our ward and a principal with the firm Solomon, Cordwell,  Buenz, selected the strip mall located on the northwest corner of Granville and Western for this project.  His vision was informed by two workshops with local residents and business owners, who imagined the mall transformed into housing, a commercial urban garden, and a plaza lush with green space and flowers, perhaps enriched by a mural and a neighborhood marker. The final rendering will reflect the shared dream resulting from this active, creative collaboration between a neighborhood architect and members of the West Ridge community.

POWR (People of West Ridge), was selected as the project’s community partner and, together with Jay’s research partner, Cheryl Dahle, CEO of FlipLabs, coordinated input from 50th Ward residents, input that we believe could be the start of a long-overdue conversation about economic development throughout the 50th Ward, currently home to too many vacant lots, vacant stores, and vacant buildings. While it’s important to begin the process of revitalizing all of our commercial districts, the project focused on a small part of Western Avenue, a street in search of an identity. Anchored at both its Granville and Howard ends by half-empty strip malls, a street littered with vacancies, empty buildings, and unused lots, Western presents an opportunity for the community to reflect on and discuss what kind of overall development best serves West Ridge now and into the future, and to plan ways to achieve its collective vision.

Note that no actual demolition or building will take place. This project is conceptual only. No businesses will be displaced, nor are there any plans for future displacement. The point of the project is not to solve urban problems, but to demonstrate how good design and good architecture contribute to community life. The project is designed to stir the imagination, to awaken an awareness of new possibilities, and to create new ways of observing the public and private spaces in which we live and work every day.

Jay will present renderings of his project at several community meetings to be scheduled in September.  Copies of his rendering will also be on display at several locations throughout the ward, and a copy will be presented to the alderman for her office. The meetings will be open to discussions about the project and the ongoing research into economic development opportunities in the 50th Ward. Resident participation in these discussions is a critical. Good planning starts with solid research, and that research includes open community conversations about the kinds of sustainable development residents want as well as a hard, realistic evaluation of existing possibilities and constraints.

The community meetings will be announced as soon as dates are finalized. In addition, there will be walking tours of the neighborhood and other activities to attract visitors. Who wouldn’t want to come to West Ridge for a tour of our lovely historic district, or  a stroll through one of our beautiful parks, and end the day with a meal at one of our many restaurants? It’s an opportunity for us to show off our architectural heritage as well, our beautiful churches and synagogues, and our beautifully landscaped residential areas. If you have a special place you’d like visitors to see, feel free to email us at HopeComm@gmx.com.

To ensure that the community outreach for the CAF project included a wide variety of people representing the diversity of our neighborhood, POWR enlisted the help of individuals and organizations who became the founding members of the HOPE Committee, a group committed to the long-term goal of working with the community to create sustainable economic development throughout the ward.  Please see the HOPE Committee page on POWR’s Web site for the names of the groups and individuals who together made this project possible. The Committee also has its own page on POWR’s Web site while HOPE’s own site is under construction.

West Ridge residents can look forward to an exciting opportunity to work together with neighbors, students, organizations, and business interests to help create the 50th Ward of the future. Our section of Western Avenue, the longest continuous street in Chicago, stretches more than 15 blocks. Similar opportunities exist on Touhy and on Devon, on Lincoln and on Howard. This project is just the starting point.

I can’t wait to see where it takes us.

NIMBY – And I Don’t Care WHO Says It’s OK

Yesterday the Republic Bank on Devon held its first recycling event. Bank Manager Robert Taylor described it as “something nice for the neighborhood,” but that depends on where you live and how you spend your Sunday mornings. In my opinion, waking up to recycling trucks is not the best way to start the day, especially when the trucks are located directly alongside residential housing. It’s yet another example of the Bank’s utter disregard for its closest neighbors. The fact that Taylor is this year’s president of the Chamber of Commerce only makes it worse.

Devon Bank holds these recycling events several times a year in its parking lot on Western. It, too, has residential housing directly across the alley, but Devon Bank’s executives take care to locate the noisy trucks closer to Western than to housing, leaving plenty of room for vehicles to move in and out. Devon Bank’s courtesy toward its neighbors is not shared by Republic Bank.

When I asked Taylor why the trucks were located at the north end of the Republic lot—closest to housing—he replied, “I didn’t think it would be a problem.”  Really??When I asked if he’d stand for having these trucks alongside his home, he raised his arm and pointed to his watch. “It’s 9 ‘clock,” he said, and then added “Is there anything we can do to please you?” This was a reference to my past complaints about the number of noisy events held in what neighbors were assured was “just a parking lot” when it was built in 2012.

The Bank miscalculated when it built the lot, tearing down that part of its building that housed rent-paying tenants, like medical, accounting, and real estate offices while hoping to cash in on the street scape. Grateful shoppers show their resentment at paying for parking by cheating the Bank in every possible way, including breaking the gates so they don’t have to pay. Transforming the space into an unlicensed play lot won’t save it.

It’s been home to the Devon Community Market, with its live and canned music blasting from huge speakers, and several live concerts sponsored by the Federation of Indian Associations (FIA).  There is only one properly-licensed venue on Devon for this kind of event, but the Chamber and the other groups won’t use it. Instead, all of these events have been staged without proper permits or licensing directly across the alley from residences.

I realize that the Bank would like to increase its presence in the community as a way to increase its business. Nothing wrong with that, but using its parking lot as an entertainment center while ignoring the laws that govern such things is simply wrong. It could choose to perform other services for the community, like sponsoring kid’s sports teams. It’s not going to increase business by annoying people.

The parking lot is not zoned for performances of any kind. This presupposes, of course, that one of the alderman’s patented stealth zoning changes has not already occurred. I am still searching the City’s zoning records to be certain, and so far have not found any changes. I can say with certainty that no warning of an impending zoning change has ever been issued to nearby residents, but this reflects only the standard lack of transparency about these things in this Ward and does not relate to whether any such changes are planned or pending.

Most of my neighbors have given up trying to be heard in the councils of power that decide how we all live with this lot. Others have made accommodations—they put up with the noise without complaint in exchange for some benefit that only the powers-that-be can grant. Some even believe that it’s better not to complain to avoid the retribution that so often accompanies standing up for one’s rights. Unfortunately, when enough people choose silence in the face of abuse by the powerful, the abuse gets worse.

No person or group that sponsored any musical or “special” event in the Republic Bank parking lot in the past three years has applied for the City’s Special Events Permit. That’s because City law requires sponsoring groups to submit a written plan in advance advising the City on the sponsor’s plans for bus reroutes, garbage disposal, general clean-up, street closures, food service, and other aspects of the event. Other applications and licenses may also be needed, depending on the event’s specific activities. These groups simply act as if they have all the authority they need. Many assert that the alderman is fully aware of their event and approves of it.

Why would anybody think the alderman can approve breaking the law? Or that her knowledge of an illegal event implies consent?

I attended a January workshop held by the City’s Licensing Department to learn what licensing is required to sponsor a public entertainment event. I learned that, BEFORE applying for the DCASE application, one must first ensure that the chosen venue is appropriately licensed by the City. Furthermore, aldermen may not interfere with the licensing process, in other words, they may not intervene in favor of an applicant nor waive the licensing requirements.

This is the biggest hurdle for sponsors and organizers: musical events can be staged only at venues that hold a Public Place of Amusement (PPA) license. The Bank parking lot doesn’t have one and cannot get one because such a venue requires a distance of at least 125 feet from residential housing. The only place on Devon with a PPA license is Bombay Hall, below street level at the site of the old Hillman’s. Not surprisingly, organizers want their events at street level, in hopes of attracting crowds. If this means trampling on residents’ rights, they don’t care.

These events tend to be staged at night and on weekends, when City offices regulating noise control and licensing are closed. Complainers are referred to the alderman, who isn’t available nights or weekends, although you can leave a message and she’ll get back to you when the event is over. This presents a problem for law enforcement, which cannot shut down these illegal events because (a) complainants are accused of racism; and (b) the event organizers claim they have the alderman’s permission. Any cop who even tried to stop one of these illegal events would no doubt find himself walking a beat in Englewood within the hour.

I talked with one man supervising the concert who told me that they didn’t have to apply for any permits because “…the City takes care of everything.” Howdoes it do that when it’s not aware the event is scheduled? Well, Washtenaw Avenue was suddenly closed in mid-afternoon, after the concert started, when drivers learned that the parking lot was closed to traffic. They were permitted to enter Washtenaw at Arthur, but did not learn they couldn’t exit until informed by  a sign hastily posted at the east-west alley,  Event organizers didn’t care.

These concerts, by the way, are set up beginning at 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Huge tractor-trailers block our alley while barrels of supplies roll down metal ramps, men shout instructions at one another, tents are erected, the stage constructed, food tables and audience chairs are set up, speakers tested—all of this occurring ten feet from sleeping residents. Most of my neighbors are not about to tangle with a couple dozen arrogant, physically-powerful men hauling barrels and heavy equipment around a parking lot at that hour of the morning. Isn’t physical intimidation a form of bullying?

Neither this year’s Indian Independence Day concert nor the extensively-publicized FunFest sponsored by the alderman and West Ridge Chamber of Commerce—both scheduled over the next three weeks—have applied for any special use permits from the City. Neither has met the statutory requirement of notifying nearby neighbors 30 days before the event that it has been scheduled. Using FOIA, I asked the City’s Department of Special Events and Cultural Affairs (DCASE) for copies of any and all applications for special use permits for events to be held in the Republic Bank Parking Lot. As of August 5, none have been located.

FunFest is an especially interesting case study of what’s wrong with the Chamber of Commerce and its approach to economic development. And it’s yet another event that lacks the proper permits yet enjoys the alderman’s sponsorship.

It all begins with a little-known taxing district that is the subject of tomorrow’s post.

 

Development Opportunity – Devon & Leavitt

The old Sheldon Cord furniture store at Devon and Leavitt has been demolished, and the neighborhood now has another opportunity to bring solid economic development and affordable housing to West Ridge.

The site is zoned C-2, which means that a mixed-use development–rental units above a ground floor stores and shops, for example–is not just possible and acceptable but also highly desirable. A developer who wanted to make a case to the neighborhood for such a development would no doubt find a receptive audience.

I think it’s a good idea for neighbors to form a coalition to talk with the alderman, get her input, ask for her support, and then begin searching for a developer who shares the community’s vision for improved housing and economic opportunities in West Ridge.

 

 

 

West Ridge “Shootings”

A young man was murdered in the 3000 block of Devon Avenue this past Wednesday night, June 1. The day before, another young man was murdered in the 6400 block of Rockwell Avenue.

The alderman responded to these murders by reassuring readers of her newsletter that our safety is her primary concern. Referring to them as “…some isolated shootings…,” she didn’t even acknowledge the true nature of the crimes.

To make matters worse, these two murders were not the top story in her newsletter. No, first she had to tout “…my annual City Sticker day…” and then advised her constituents to keep their lawns mowed and try composting. Then she got around to the unfortunate “shootings.”

One poster to EveryblockChicago noted that the worsening economic conditions in the 50th Ward and the alderman’s lack of involvement contribute to the recent increase in crime.

I think she’s right.

RogersEdge “On the Table”

The Chicago Community Trust sponsored a series of discussions across the City yesterday. The Trust’s “On the Table” sessions bring together small groups of residents, business owners, and nonprofit leadership to discuss local issues and community improvement while sharing a meal.

I chose to attend the discussion in Rogers Park because discussions would revolve around the partnership known as the RogersEdge Business Improvement Initiative, spearheaded by the aldermen from the 48th and 49th Wards, Harry Osterman and Joe Moore, and including Loyola University’s Lake Shore Community Partners, The Rogers Park Business Alliance, and the Edgewater Chamber of Commerce.

The purpose of RogersEdge is, in the words of Jennifer Clark, the University’s Associate VP for Community and Campus Planning, “to provide more focused support and strategic planning opportunities for businesses and commercial areas within the boundary of Granville Avenue from Kenmore to Broadway, Broadway Avenue from Granville to Devon, Devon from the viaduct east of Broadway to Glenwood, and Sheridan from Devon to North Shore.”

More than 50 people took part in the discussions, which were frank and opinionated. Participants at our table discussed the positives and negatives of the area, the current business mix, and dreams for the future. It’s so energizing to reimagine neighborhood spaces with an eye toward building a vibrant, commercially viable, and resident-friendly community. At discussion’s end, we each allotted our RogersEdge cash ($1,000 apiece) to those suggestions we’d like to see funded.

A report from Lake Shore Community Partners is forthcoming. It will present all the ideas and cash allocations. To quote Jennifer again, “Based on your input and feedback, the report will help us plan and prioritize the next year of RogersEdge initiatives.”  The follow-up includes a walking assessment of the RogersEdge business district next week.  I’m looking forward to taking part.

It seems to me that the area in question is not just the gateway to Rogers Park, but to West Ridge as well. It is vitally important to the commercial health of West Ridge that such an initiative be undertaken here. We already look awfully shabby when compared to other nearby neighborhoods, all of which are recovering from the 2006 economic downturn. It helps that they have activist aldermen.

I was also scheduled to take part in one of the West Ridge discussions but the bad weather and other hindrances kept me from getting there. I arrived just as the meeting ended. The group recommends creating community gardens.

 

Update: Mr. Siddiqui’s Storefronts

You’ll remember that last June the alderman made quite a fuss about the building at 2906-10 West Devon, calling it an “eyesore.” [For the uninitiated, “eyesore” is 50th Ward shorthand meaning “follow the money.”]  She persuaded the City to take the property owner to court, alleging various building code violations, and demanded that the owner improve the property and rent the storefronts, or sell.

Read my post of July 7, 2015, “What’s an Eyesore?” for details. I said at the time that I suspected that it wasn’t the site’s appearance that warranted the alderman’s attention. Here are photos of the site taken last July and last month. The building remains in far better shape, at least on the outside, than many buildings on Devon that are rented to grocery stores, medical clinics, and other businesses.

The storefronts remain vacant, and appear to be no cleaner and no dirtier than they were when the alderman decided to make an issue of them.

I’ve been following the case [2015 M1 401751] as it meanders through the Circuit Court.  Suit was filed by the City against six defendants on June 12, 2015. It took several months to serve the defendants and for attorneys to file their appearances. On February 10, the case was set for status call on May 18, 2016.

Ward history suggests that this lawsuit may be an attempt to benefit private interests that want to acquire this property. It’s certainly shameful that, at the very least, the alderman publicly branded the defendants as slumlords, potentially creating a public relations nightmare for property owners and banks caught in the downward spiral created by the absence of an economic development plan for the neighborhood.  She promised that plan when she ran for alderman in 2011, and it’s way past due.

In the meantime, the alderman might look into suing the owners of real eyesores, like those pictured below. Both are within a block or two of her office.

Perhaps if the right parties show an interest in buying these properties, she’ll get to work cleaning them up.

 

 

Proposed Dispensary Site to Become Private Housing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chicago Municipal Code zoning regulations can be found here.

 

A Tale of Two Restaurants

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t get the alderman involved.

 

Another Rejection for West Ridge MMD

The Green Gate Compassion Center, a licensed medical marijuana dispensary that would have been located on Western Avenue next to Warren Park, has been denied  reconsideration of its application by the Zoning Board of Appeals.

According to DNA Info, this time the vote was 5-0 against, instead of the 2-2 tie that blocked its original application. The online newspaper also reports that Alderman Silverstein opposed reconsideration.

The fifth vote against Green Gate was cast by the newest member of the Board, Blake Sercye, an attorney with Jenner & Block. He ran for Cook County Board Commissioner in 2014 and lost, although he had the backing of both the Mayor and County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

Widespread community support, jobs for residents, nearly $500,000 to be invested in property improvements, and relief of pain and suffering for patients authorized to receive medical marijuana were all meaningless to the ZBA, swept aside by the alderman’s insistence on misapplying the law and the well-rehearsed testimony of a child.

The denial of the request for reconsideration is yet another example of the alderman’s indifference to building economic opportunity in the 50th Ward as well as her practice of overruling community input and doing what she wants regardless of the community’s wishes.

Read the full article here.