Andrew Rowlas Challenging Silverstein for Alderman

Andrew Rowlas, a community activist and former educator, has announced his candidacy for alderman of the 50th Ward, challenging two-term incumbent Debra Silverstein.

Rowlas is campaigning on a progressive platform of economic development centered around small businesses, improved educational opportunities for neighborhood students, and civic engagement by neighborhood residents.

His goals are in sharp contrast to Silverstein’s eight years of inertia. The ward still waits for the economic development plan she promised in 2011. Her lack of transparency and refusal to engage with her constituents are near legendary, even for Chicago. She is one of the Mayor’s most dependable stooges, a reliable member of the rubber-stamp brigade in the City Council.

Rowlas has served as president of the West Ridge Community Organization, is a leading member of LEARN–the coalition of community members and organizations that led the charge for a new library– and has worked extensively to foster communication and cooperation between and with all ethnic and religious communities across the ward. He was instrumental in the formation of the Warren Park Advisory Council, which gives local residents a voice in Park activities.

It’s worth noting that, after nearly 8 years in office, Silverstein had never shown any interest in connecting the north side’s largest park with its nearby residents. Rowlas saw the need to do so and rallied other activists to make it happen. Just imagine the great things that could happen in the 50th with a proactive alderman!

Rowlas spent 38 years as a teacher, counselor, and principal. He would be a strong voice for increased quality educational opportunities both in the ward and across Chicago.

Support the Rowlas campaign by volunteering or donating via the campaign Web site, rowlasforward50.com.

Silverstein will not be able to run a Rose Garden campaign this year. I look forward to the coming debates. And so should you.

 

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Economic Development Community Meeting at Northtown Library

Every year the Chicago Community Trust invites City residents to participate in discussions of topics of public interest and public policy. The program, known as “Open Table,”  organizes these citywide discuussions neighborhood by neighborhood.

This year, the West Ridge Community Organization and the West Ridge Chamber of Commerce are co – sponsoring the OpenTable program that will take place on Thursday, May 10th, at the Northtown Library, 6435 North California, from 6 to 8 p.m.  The selected topic is economic planning and development in West Ridge.

Discussions will begin with a presentation by Abraham Lentner, city planning instructor att the University of Illinois at Chicago. After his presentation, the audience will break into small discussion groups to share ideas about potential eonomic dvelopment improvements for our neighborhood. The audience will then reconvene to share each group’s ideas, concerns, and recommendations.

The event is free. If you have any questions please contact the West Ridge Community Organization or the West Ridge Chamber of Commerce.

“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.

“Affordable Housing & Community Design”

I attended this lecture yesterday and it was well worth attending. Jeff Bone of Landon Bone Baker Architects presented a wonderfully informative slide show about his firm’s approaches to affordable housing. It got me to thinking about how West Ridge residents might approach repurposing our current library and developing affordable housing in our neighborhood.

His firm has repurposed existing buildings to house homeless youth, low-income families with at least one family member suffering from a physical disability, and rehabbed SROs. Working with Casa Norte, for example, Bone’s firm created housing for 16 homeless young men, including a communal kitchen where they prepared and shared their meals.

In Roseland, his firm built several kinds of senior housing, including apartments for independent living and a building for assisted living as well as grandfamily housing for grandparents raising children as well as townhouses for single mothers.  It has also built new 3-bedroom homes.

The firm is also building developments of tiny houses (325 sq. ft.), currently a 12-house development centered around individual gardens, perfect for single adults or empty-nesters. Bone explained that, while a standard new house runs about $350,000 to build, a tiny house costs in the neighborhood of $80,000.

The firm has developed commercial spaces as well, and has worked with private developers as well as CHA.

West Ridge residents should hear what he has to say about developing / repurposing existing building, affordable housing, and building community–all with a green thumbprint. Some developments also include training kitchens so residents can work in the food service industry, and other vocational training.

Many thanks to Derrick Everett of West Ridge for bringing this talk to my attention. Now it needs a wider audience.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note how the monies are budgeted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

All fees are estimated.

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

The Silverstein way.

 

Lawsuits, Vacancies, and Back Taxes

Two property owners taken to court by the City at the alderman’s request were recently in the news for failure to pay property taxes.

Last June the City sued Khalid J. Siddiqui, owner of the property at 2904-10 West Devon, for alleged building code violations. Mr. Siddiqui and his co-defendants were not served nor were appearances filed until late 2015 and early 2016. A court hearing is scheduled for May 18 (see Events Calendar on this blog).

It now appears that Mr. Siddiqui may lose his property because of unpaid property taxes  from 2014. The taxes are scheduled to be sold at Cook County’s annual tax sale beginning Friday, June 3, 2016. They remain unpaid at this writing.

Then there’s the long story of the property at 2827-39 West Touhy Avenue, taken to court at the alderman’s request in May 2014, also for building code violations. The alderman invited the community to attend a court hearing in August of 2014, and claimed she was trying to get the property fixed up and rented or sold. The owner, Virginia Koldon, disputed the alderman’s statements, saying that the buildings had been fixed, that she was in the process of selling them, and that the vacancies resulted from (a) an inhospitable economic climate, and (b) a community that did not support them.

Mrs. Koldon also told DNA Info that the situation was “…all political” (Silverstein was up for re-election at the time). In denying Mrs. Koldon’s claims, Silverstein said that the Koldon storefronts were near a “block long of continuous vacant stores” and said she wanted economic development.

The owner of record is now Ephraim Tatelbaum, according to the Cook County Treasurer’s office. The 2014 property taxes were paid after the properties were listed for tax auction (see the 2014 Annual Tax Sale Schedule in the News-Star edition of April 6-12, 2016).

The Touhy properties and the “block long of continuous vacant stores” have not changed since the lawsuit against Mrs. Koldon was dismissed in September 2014. The Siddiqui property also remains vacant.

Under Silverstein’s leadership, economic development in the 50th Ward has continued its decline, and currently lags behind that of every other North Side ward.

Maybe the alderman should try something new. Instead of harassing store owners over vacancies, she might try working with property owners and residents to create the “spirited” economic development plan she promised over five years ago, in 2011, when she challenged Bernie Stone.

The neighborhood has waited for it long enough.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Fill Those Storefronts!

Last June the City filed a lawsuit against the owner of the building at 2900-2910 West Devon alleging disrepair and building code violations. The building, formerly home to Rosenblum’s World of Judaica, was and is home to several vacant storefronts. The alderman, describing the building as an “eyesore,” announced that she wanted the building brought up to code and the storefronts rented.

DSC_05751083Well, it appears that two new businesses will be moving in. They may not be exactly what the alderman had in mind. The corner storefront will become yet another dollar store, one of at least half a dozen such stores on Devon.

The storefront next to it is loaded with washing machines and dryers, so it appears this may become a Laundromat. Nothing official yet, no signs, just equipment.

These businesses will at least fill the storefronts. The next block to the east has seen two stores close recently. One had its business license revoked by the State of Illinois Department of Revenue. The other went out of business.

Where’s that ‘spirited economic plan” the alderman promised in 2011?

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.