Does Devon Need a Hindu Temple?

The owner of Shree Ganesh Hindu temple at 2545 Devon Avenue has applied for a special use permit that would officially make the storefront temple a religious institution and allow it to operate on Devon Avenue regardless of its impact on the neighborhood. The temple and the alderman took care not to alert neighboring residents and will present  the community with another done deal after the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) rules in the temple’s favor. This is a foregone conclusion–the alderman backs the plan, yet another example of the way democracy works in Chicago, the ZBA, and the 50th Ward.

Building a Hindu Temple on Devon is a very bad idea and should not simply sail through the approval process without community input.

Understand, I am not opposed to the Hindu temple itself. But Devon is the wrong location for it, it will create severe traffic and parking problems, and the hundreds of tourists who are expected to drive here daily for photo ops will worsen the already heavy air and noise pollution that hang over Devon like clouds some days. It will also drive traffic into residential areas already overburdened by drivers who park haphazardly and shoppers who throw garbage everywhere. Why not build it on Western, which has ample vacant lots for a temple and parking? On a lot that would showcase the 40-foot high rooftop addition and make it easier to photograph without halting traffic?

Oh, wait. When plans were first announced for the temple in late 2016, the daughter of the temple’s owner suggested that only about 150 people would be  expected on a daily basis, about 50 of them living within walking distance. However, she did state clearly that the temple is intended to attract hundreds of tourists to Devon’s Indian shopping area, thus making the temple less about religion than about commerce. Although the family claims that a Hindu temple is needed to bring the community together–this was actually said with a straight face by the temple’s lawyer–its purpose is clearly to draw customers to its owner’s four other businesses.

Despite claims by the temple’s owner that Hindis are increasingly moving to West Ridge, in fact, according to the 2010 U.S. Religious Census, the Chicago Metropolitan area (defined as Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, Illinois-Indiana-Wisconsin) claims only 6,000 Hindu adherents out of a total population of more than 9.4 million people. According to The Pew Research Center’s 2008 Religious Landscape Study, only about 1,300 Hindu live in Illinois, or less than 1% of the population. Less than .7% of the U.S. population identifies as Hindu.

What the temple’s owner hears is not a great clamor crying out for community, but merely the ka-ching of his own cash registers.

I might add that the temple used the Republic Bank parking lot, not zoned for religious observances or public performances, to celebrate the end of yet another unannounced (at least to residents) festival held over Labor Day that required setting up four loudspeakers blasting dance music into the homes of residents living just ten feet away.  The affair had the alderman’s full support. The current festival that began on September 21 is scheduled to end on September 30, Yom Kippur, one of the Jewish high holy days. I wonder if Hindu celebrants will set up loudspeakers again to celebrate the triumph of good over evil while others are observing their holy day in quiet prayer and contemplation. Maybe the temple’s business angle gives it immunity from legal obligations and niceties like consideration for others.

You’d think that an additional couple of hundred more cars per day clogging one of the most congested streets in the City would be cause for concern. You’d hope that air quality for residents, including children attending schools located within a block of Devon, would be a priority. You’d assume that ample parking for the vehicles of hundreds of camera-laden tourists would be part of the planning process.  You’d want to know if they’ll be arriving in sedans or RVs. You’d think the impact on nearby residential streets and alleys would be studied. You’d think the community would be invited to consider the problems inherent in placing a temple smack in the middle of a commercial strip surrounded by thousands of dwellings, schools, and senior citizens.

Ha!. This is the 50th Ward.

No traffic, parking, or environmental impact studies are planned. Neither are any community meetings.

You see, Debra Silverstein doesn’t care if the temple has a negative environmental or quality of life impact on the community. She’s never cared much for the southeast end of the ward, and my guess is that it will be ceded to another alderman with the coming ward remap. The formula is simple: election 2019; census 2020; ward redistricting 2021.  She isn’t interested in economic development, either, and the Indian merchants and property owners along Devon run the show, such as it is. Why not build a temple? Let Joe Moore or Harry Osterman or Pat O’Connor deal with the consequences. It won’t be Silverstein’s problem any more.

But the way she went about it should be remembered by every voter in 2019. It’s time for the voters of the 50th Ward to stand up against Silverstein’s secret deals, her unilateral decisions benefiting special interests at the community’s expense, her disregard for residents’ quality of life, her lack of transparency and penchant for secrecy, and her lack of interest in economic development.

Devon Avenue doesn’t need a Hindu temple.

But West Ridge needs an alderman with a vision, a plan, and a talent for leadership.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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PB Campaign Off to a Good Start

A lot was accomplished at Tuesday’s first meeting of the campaign to bring participatory budgeting to the 50th Ward.

Tom Desmond’s presentation outlined the 49th Ward’s experience with participatory budgeting. He began with a brief history–its origins in Brazil, and Joe Moore’s bringing it to the 49th Ward, the first ward in the City of Chicago to share menu money decision-making with residents.

A Steering Committee has formed. The alderman is being invited to the next meeting. Contacts are being called.  Other groups are being invited to participate. The petitions and signature goals for each precinct are ready for volunteer circulators. Updated poll sheets are on the way.

Watch this space for news about the next meeting.

And if you’d like to join us in this exciting project, please either come to the next meeting or contact us via this Web site.

Devon Avenue’s Open Garbage Pits

Devon, Western to Whipple. Every block defaced by open garbage pits or street corner trashcans filled with household garbage. Worse, the new seating areas encourage people to sit, talk, and snack, but lack trash receptacles, so the planters and nearby garden areas serve as dumping grounds for water bottles, coffee cups, food containers, chip bags, and cigarette packs.  This is true even for those seating areas west of California, the area that was completed first.

It’s simply disgraceful.  All pictures were taken Tuesday morning, August 11, 2015.

To be fair, so many residents dump their household garbage in street corner trashcans rather than in their own dumpsters that there’s almost no room for anything else.

The new seating areas lack trash cans so trash winds up in planters, on parkways, and on the ground. Then there’s the unfinished seating area below that clearly demonstrates what could happen if trash cans are added to seating areas.

What’s an Eyesore?

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

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

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

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

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

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

We all know how that turned out.

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

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.

Participatory Budgeting

The lucky residents of the 49th Ward will begin voting this Saturday on how to spend the ward’s $1.3M in menu money. Here’s the sample ballot for this year’s choices:

PB49_Sample_Ballot_2015

I’d like to see participatory budgeting in the 50th Ward. Maybe pressure from residents can achieve in our ward what the alderman has so far resisted: input from residents into both menu money spending and community development decisions.

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Election Shenanigans Again?

I was called on Election Day by a voter who said that judges in “the precinct on Kedzie” had been urging voters to vote for Rahm Emanuel. The caller said that there were no pollwatchers in that precinct. I referred the caller to both the Garcia campaign and the State’s Attorney’s office, and understand that an investigator was to be dispatched to find out what was happening.

There were reports in the February election that judges in certain precincts were telling voters that there were no write-in candidates when, in fact, there were two, Fuji Shioura and Peter Sifnotis. I don’t know yet if this precinct was involved in that episode as well.

The alderman, her husband, and one of their daughters visited every precinct on election day in February, asking about turnout and greeting voters, a clear violation of election law, as was the alderman’s visit, again accompanied by her husband, to the early voting site in Warren Park during the campaign. They left only after their presence was challenged by another candidate.

We’ll be voting in primary elections just about a year from now. It’s time for more citizens to consider becoming involved in the electoral process as election judges or poll watchers. Without honest people committed to fair elections on duty in every precinct on election day, we will continue to have incidents like these.

We cannot and should not allow this to become standard election behavior. The fact that all political power in the ward is held by one family–the Silversteins–should not mean that election laws don’t apply in the 50th Ward.

 

 

Payback Pettiness

My precinct voted against Debra Silverstein in February. Such independence requires payback.

For the mayoral run-off, my precinct was not assigned a PA (Precinct Assistant) to set up the electronic equipment. Precincts that supported Debra were. Judges didn’t get any coffee or lunch, either, although judges in precincts that supported Debra did. I also heard that two other precincts that came out against Debra in February had malfunctioning equipment in April.

The ward committeeman is responsible for the election process, so this was Silverstein-controlled from start to finish. And there was no warning that no PA would be available to us. We had to call downtown to find that none had been assigned.

Now, it’s true that the Board of Elections makes it clear that judges should not expect to be fed by anybody other than themselves. But assigning PAs? It’s telling that the precincts that supported Debra in February were the only ones that received support from the ward committeeman’s office in April.

This is exactly the way the Silversteins apportion city services in the ward: friends and supporters get more than their fair share of street cleaning, road paving, and new lighting.  The rebellious southeast side of the ward gets nothing. The decision not to support all precincts equally is troubling because the electoral process is taxpayer-supported, just like City services. Public resources should be allocated fairly and equally, a concept unknown to the Silversteins.

Except the street scape. Storage facilities. And political pettiness.

I have a feeling payback season is just beginning. Stay tuned.

More Storage Coming

Storage facilities are a growth industry. The Village of Skokie has now recommended that an 812-unit facility be built in the 3200 block of Touhy.  Let’s see: 1,200 units under construction at Devon and Ridge, an unknown number at Devon and Kedzie, and 812 at Touhy and McCormick. In addition to all the storage facilities already in the 50th Ward or within five or six miles, including Peterson and California and the 6300 block of Broadway.

The full story is here.