India Independence Day Celebration to Ignore Laws, Disrespect Neighbors Again

Completed audience and soundstage set-up for 2015 India Day celebration in Republic Bank parking lot. Note that soundstage is directly in front of residential housing, separated only by an alley.

Photo of the 2015 concert. Note how the stage is set directly in front of housing. There’s no good place to put the stage, since there’s housing on both sides of the lot, and the extreme noise cannot be contained but can be heard for blocks and blocks. You know the alderman would never permit this where she lives.

One again the Federation of Indian Associations has arrogantly decided to break Chicago laws so that it can force its celebration of Indian Independence Day on West Ridge residents. Once again it has decided to stage a concert in the Republic Bank parking lot, even though the lot is not zoned for public performances, has no PPA (public place of amusement) license and cannot obtain one, and is located an alley’s width from residential housing, far less than the 125 feet required by law. The committee planning the event has also failed to give neighbors the legally mandated 30-day notice of the planned event, a failure that prevents neighbors from voicing any objections. The event is, however, well-publicized in Indian news-papers, with full-page color ads and photos of invited Illinois politicians–the governor, the mayor, the alderman and Ira–as if inviting them makes such arrogance acceptable. None of them will show up but all will issue mawkish pronouncements about the importance of the Indian community to American democracy.

This is especially galling because Devon’s Indian business community, with only one exception, couldn’t be bothered to acknowledge–let alone celebrate–American Independence Day just six weeks ago. Not a single American flag, not one banner, not one sign in any window acknowledged the birthday of the country that has given Indian-Americans such opportunities. It’s absolutely disgraceful that taxes paid by the very residents the FIA abuses are partly funding this celebration of the independence of a foreign country when not one cent was spent to celebrate July 4.

You’d think a business community first welcomed to the 50th Ward in 1973 would be established enough to celebrate in one of our lovely parks instead of a parking lot.

You’d think the heirs to one of the world’s oldest civilizations would know how to behave, to show others the respect they demand for themselves.

You/d think that a community that makes up only about 8-10% of West Ridge would be more sensitive to its non-Indian neighbors.

You’d be wrong.

The Pakistanis gather in Warren Park for the party after their parade. One look around Devon will tell you how much respect the Indian shoppers have for our community, as the streets and planters fill with garbage, residents exit buses in the middle of the street because Indian shoppers arrogantly park in bus lanes and crosswalks, and every new seating area is stained with spittle.The organizers of this selfish event seem to think that, having taken our major shopping street away from the community without a fight, they are entitled to control everything else they want, especially if it will drive non-Indian residents out of the neighborhood.

The noise level of the concert will be 120-150 decibels, comparable to jets taking off on a runway, This is scheduled to go on continuously from 2-7 pm. If the FIA organizers played by the rules they would have completed an application from the City’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and provided a written response to this question:  “Will electronic sound amplification equipment or a public address system be used at the event? If yes, Indicate, on the Site Plan, the location of the stages and sound systems, the location and direction of all speakers, and the proximity to residential addresses.” The application also asks for the hours during which the amplified noise will occur, and what plans the organizers have for controlling the noise. What application? What site plan? What residential addresses? It’s our independence day! We’re entitled!

What kind of people would be so callous and insensitive toward others that they would deliberately inflict such noise? What kind of public official would permit it? And what is the bank’s responsibility to residents? Any decent person has to be appalled by the blatant disrespect for both the law and the residents that FIA organizers demonstrate every year.And let’s not forget the alderman’s callous indifference to what they’re doing. I once called the police to stop the noise, and one of the organizers told them that the alderman knew all about the event and to call her office. The cops left without doing anything.

My mother used to say that there’s nothing you can do when you’re dealing with people without a conscience. She was right. Clearly, FIA has none. Suggestions that FIA treat others the way it demands Indians be treated will have no effect. Pure political clout is being displayed here, and it’s meant to be seen.

And the alderman? Her gutless non-response to the excesses taking place on Devon every day will be another in an increasingly long list of failures that will become  campaign issues in 2018.

Insults like this event matter more in the long run than all the libraries in the world.

 

The 2018 Campaign Begins

Don’t tell me that the 2018 campaign hasn’t started yet. The alderman has redesigned  both her newsletter and her Web site, and the campaign’s first mailer, disguised as an invitation to a Town Hall meeting, has been sent to residents. As usual, Silverstein’s “Town Hall meeting” does NOT involve her reporting to her constituents what she’s been doing at City Hall, but instead features the ward’s two police commanders and focuses on crime, a tried-and-true topic for her. Raising fears that West Ridge trembles under an onslaught of criminal activity and that she is closely involved in advising the police is just another tactic in what’s sure to be a no-holds-barred attempt to keep  herself in power.

What other alderman would proudly proclaim that, after seven years in office, she’s added a date and topic headings to the ward’s newsletter? Who reads it? Ward residents who want to know what’s going on in City Council have to read some other alderman’s newsletter. She never reports to her constituents on how she voted on any City issue. Did you ever read her announcements of meetings or reports from the Ward’s Zoning Advisory Committee? Neighborhood Housing Advisory Board? Neighborhood Business Alliance? No. Those things don’t exist in the 50th Ward. Citizen participation in ward governance scares her. She won’t consider citizen input unless she can pack a board with supporters–and even then, she won’t tell the community who she’s appointed. Her Library Advisory Board is a case in point. Created March 17. Sworn to secrecy.  Nobody’s business who’s speaking in behalf of the neighborhood.

The Web site is now easier to navigate, but it’s the same old stuff. The Gallery may as well be retitled the Silverstein Family Album; it’s bursting with photos of the alderman, the alderman and Ira, the alderman at meetings, etc. Watch for most of these to be recycled into additional campaign pieces.

And then there’s crime. A sure-fire way to get the populace involved. There’s been a rash of thefts from unlocked cars and garages. There’s graffiti. This is not big-time stuff. The murders on Devon last year didn’t elicit public comment or meetings from the alderman. But careless people who don’t lock their doors deserve police time and attention? The fact is that West Ridge is one of the safest communities in the City. We shouldn’t have to be told by the police to behave with common sense and pick up and lock up after ourselves.

A true Town Hall meeting would require the alderman to engage with her constituents. Give-and-take, as long as it takes, not the standard one hour she can spare once or twice per term. It will never happen.

So far the usual collection of marginal opponents is surfacing, so she’ll be sure to repeat the tactic that worked so well for her in 2015–the “I’m too swell to stand in the room with write-ins, therefore I won’t participate in any debate.” It sure beats having to act as though she wants the office, rather than feels entitled to it.

 

 

 

Berny Stone Park

Today’s DNA Info reports that the alderman and unnamed community groups are supporting a proposal to name our new park at Devon & McCormick “Berny Stone Park.”  The City has begun the 45-day public comment period required before changing the name from Park 526 to Berny Stone Park. I first suggested the honor a year ago, and I’m glad to see that the alderman is acting on it.

 

 

 

The Menu Money Mess

The City’s Office of the Inspector General.(OIG) has released its audit of aldermanic menu money. OIG reports that the program is underfunded, does not follow the “best practices” recommended by the Government Financial Officers Association, and suffers management difficulties ranging from lack of communication between departments to the inability to develop a comprehensive citywide capital projects planning process.

Each ward’s menu money has remained fixed at $1.32M for the past ten years, while the costs of improvements (materials, labor) have increased. Projects are not prioritized by the City Department of Transportation (CDOT). Instead, each alderman decides which infrastructure improvements will be funded in a given ward—and which will not. Some City residents have a voice in how menu money is spent through participatory budgeting, but most do not. .

CDOT does not allocate funds on the basis of need. Put plainly, the City’s history of disinvestment in poorer wards and CDOT’s insistence on providing each alderman the same amount of menu money means that some areas of the City continue to deteriorate while others can spend on beautification.

In his April 19 letter forwarding the OIG report to the Mayor, aldermen, and other City officials, Inspector General Joseph M. Ferguson was blunt:

“OIG found that the administration of the Menu program does not align with best practices for infrastructure planning ….This audit identified significant concerns related to the City’s planning and management of residential infrastructure. For example, we determined that the allocation of $1.32 million per ward bears no relationship to the actual infrastructure needs of each ward.” [Emphasis added]

OIG recommends that infrastructure planning and repair be handled by CDOT, stating that “CDOT [should] fully inhabit its role in residential infrastructure planning by directly implementing a comprehensive, multi-year strategic capital plan for maintenance and improvement.” CDOT’s response?  “[T]he Department reasserted its general but analytically unsupported belief that current practice provides an “appropriate framework” for addressing core residential infrastructure needs.” [Emphasis added]

OIG also recommends that CDOT conduct a citywide analysis of residential infrastructure needs; and that the City allocate funding per ward based on that need.

The level of incompetence displayed by high-ranking City employees is staggering. Basic management practices are absent. Officials admit they don’t analyze needs or seek information from one another before creating budgets, and don’t measure what, if any, impact the allocated funding has. All the wards get the same amount of money, even if actual needs don’t justify it, because nobody has determined what each ward’s needs are.

Aldermen control infrastructure spending within the limits set by the level of funding the City can afford. The City pays high interest rates on its constant borrowing, leaving little money  available for capital improvement projects. For example, in  the book Chicago Is Not Broke budget expert Ralph Matire notes that, in 2016, 44% of the City budget was consumed by interest payments, while only 19% was allocated to infrastructure improvement.

The Illinois Campaign for Political Reform (ICPR) in its recent comments on the OIG report compared Chicago to other cities around the country.  In New York, the city’s DOT controls the process and the funding. In Los Angeles, a citywide database is used to track street conditions; resurfacing is determined by both need and cost. Houston and Philadelphia give responsibility for street improvements to their respective DOTs; streets are resurfaced based on need.

Some of the OIG more disturbing findings:

  • CDOT “does not perform comprehensive, long-term analysis to determine annual residential infrastructure needs…. “
  • Office of Management and Budget [OBM] “does not seek input from CDOT regarding estimated residential infrastructure need…”
  • Neither CDOT nor OBM has analyzed whether the menu money meets infrastructure needs.
  • CDOT does not prioritize projects, or insist that capital assets whose repair will increase in cost in future years be addressed first, but leaves decision-making to the aldermen
  • The fact that menu money spending is decided on an annual basis by individual aldermen prevents long-range, comprehensive, citywide infrastructure planning
  • Residential infrastructure needs were not fully met in any of the City’s fifty wards. (Pothole repair don’t count in terms of  infrastructure repair. Potholes are considered a “deficient piece” of a “whole component” ([the street), and do not replace the whole component when filled.).
  • In 2014, aldermen were allowed to spend menu money not only in the ward to which they were elected but also in areas added to their wards in the 2011 ward redistricting, even though the new ward boundaries would not take effect until 2015. {CDOT has accepted OIG’s recommendation that this practice be ended.]
  • Aldermen are permitted to spend menu money on non-infrastructure projects. [CDOT has said this practice will continue as long as rules and regulations governing funding sources are not broken.]
  • Nineteen aldermen failed to comply with CDOT deadlines for submitting menu money spending requests. [CDOT has agreed to enforce submission deadlines.]
  • The best-funded ward is the 46th, which covered 88.5% of its infrastructure needs from menu money, leaving a deficit of $218,563, while the worst-funded, the 34th ward, covered only 15.1% of its infrastructure needs, leaving a deficit of $9.5M. [Menu money does not reflect the size of the ward or the level of infrastructure repair that’s necessary. The 46th ward has only 165.6 street blocks and 80 alley blocks, compared to 888 street blocks and 677.6 alley blocks in the 34th.]
  • Installing a left-turn arrow cost $70,000 per intersection in 2014 (see pages 24-26 for CDOT cost breakdowns for repairs to streets, alleys, etc.)
  • OIG estimated the annualized costs for street and alley repairs over the life cycle of each type of repair. (See details of other repairs/replacements on page 30.)
    • What’s the annual cost of resurfacing a residential street? $4,950 per year for 20 years.
    • An alley?  $3,375 per year for 20 years.
    • Street lighting? $1,464 for 50 years.
    • Curb replacement?  $1,600 per year for 50 years.

Earlier this week I watched from my window as eight City workers planted a single sapling on a neighbor’s parkway. Seven men to dig the hole, stand the tree inside, and put the dirt back. The eighth man drove the forklift. I thought about this again over the past two days while reading the OIG report.

The private sector couldn’t operate this way. The very least a public employee should offer is competence. The very least an employee should expect is  a workplace that has a clearly-defined purpose and goals, and a planned, logical, and reasonable method of achieving those goals. How can a program be created to solve a problem that hasn’t been analyzed? How can a budget be prepared without the kind of basic information needed to establish an efficient and effective spending plan? How can departments working on the same problem not communicate with one another? sn’t anybody in charge?

No wonder so many people are voting with their feet.

____________________________________________________________________

Let’s look at the findings specific to the 50th Ward.

To maintain the 50th Ward’s 383.2 residential street blocks and 304 residential alley blocks, OIG reports that $5,265,165 in menu money was spent from 2012-2015 on residential infrastructure improvements. It was allocated as follows:

  • 91.8%  – Streets
  •  5.91% – Street Lighting
  •  0.8%   – Sidewalks & Pedestrian-Related Projects
  •  1.3%  –  Alleys
  •   0.1% –  Traffic

From 2012-2015, no menu money was spent in the 50th on curbs and gutters, painting, cameras, bike lanes, the Chicago Park District, Chicago Public Schools, or any other CDOT or non-CDOT project.

In 2015, the cost of maintaining residential street and alley blocks was $4,856,947; menu money covered 34.6% of of that total and ADA-compliance funding another $360,000, leaving a deficit of $3,176,947.

___________________________________________________________________

 

A Brief Community Meeting

The alderman has called a “brief community meeting” to discuss the new library building, this time with an emphasis on the senior housing to be built on the second and third floors. The meeting is scheduled for Monday, June 12, at Warren Park at 6:30 p.m.

Since last October’s announcement that a new library would finally be built, the alderman has held three meetings with residents (November 14, March 20, May 1) to discuss plans and listen to the concerns and opinions of the library’s users, residents, and the new building’s neighbors. The first meeting lasted two hours, the others one hour each, for a total of four hours of neighborhood input.

Two surveys were distributed. One, created by the LEARN Coalition, offered the alderman, the designers, and City officials detailed information about what library users want in the new facility. The other, created by the alderman and her secret advisory committee, provided information collected largely from non-users and schoolchildren. At best, it reinforced the information acquired by LEARN. Overall, it was a joke.

The alderman has yet to tell the residents of West Ridge who serves on her secret advisory committee and why and how they were chosen. She announced on March 17 that the committee had been formed but chose not to tell her constituents who was selected to represent them in critical discussions with CHA and the designers. As I understand it, the secret advisory committee learned of the June 12 meeting when residents did. This strongly suggests that all the decisions have been made and no further input is needed or wanted from residents or the secret advisory committee.

I wonder who’ll advise the CHA on which of the alderman’s supporters should score apartments for themselves, family members, and friends. CHA has already decided to create a new applicant pool for the building, rather than select the next 30 West Ridge residents on its current waitlists. Too many waitlists, better to start over, we were told. Politics should not play a role in tenant selection, but this is West Ridge, where one-family rule has rendered transparency irrelevant.

The library is scheduled to open in December 2018, just in time for the February 2019 municipal elections, not that there’s any connection. The existing library will close in September of 2018, just as the school year begins, to allow the transfer of books and other materials to the new building. A cynic might think that the political futures of the mayor and the alderman take precedence over the futures of neighborhood children.

Can’t you just see the gala opening? Ice and snow, subzero cold, gale-force winds, frozen microphones, shivering populace standing awestruck as Power lauds itself for spending our tax dollars to build a library and public housing with working electricity and a roof that doesn’t leak? Or maybe the building will open quietly, with the gala reserved for the following Spring.

After the elections.

Post-Survey Thoughts

So, where were we? Oh, yes. The alderman gave the architects the results of her library survey—the one that showed that 7 out of 10 respondents don’t use the Northtown Library, slightly more than half of respondents (52%) never even visit the Northtown Library, and 76% of the 600 respondents under age 16 voted in favor of a coffee bar but did not support space for the community to meet. She said these results would aid in designing the library we all need and want.

The alderman also stated in her newsletter that the LEARN Survey obtained similar results. It did not. It asked different questions, but even where the questions were comparable, results differ significantly. This is because the LEARN Survey was a serious attempt to gather information from the community, and not a last-minute pastiche of poorly-conceived questions designed to deflect attention from the lack of information coming from the alderman’s office.

Had the alderman been serious about gathering information, she would have taken the time to properly design her survey: First question: Do you use the Northtown Library? “Yes” respondents should have been directed to one set of follow-up questions, “No” respondents to another set. It’s more important for planners to know WHY someone doesn’t use the library than to know that non-users would like to have a coffee bar. It should not be up to the alderman, the architects, or the residents to guess at the reasons people don’t use the Northtown facility; that question should have been part of the survey. If answers are subject to interpretation, then the survey has failed its most important test: Does it tell us what we want to know?

Input from the neighborhood’s children could have been captured by a separate survey designed with them in mind. Children should have a voice in selecting books and media bought for their use, but they should not be voting on the need for a community meeting room.

Whoever thought it a good idea to have the kids take the survey in class or for homework or whatever other reason has done the community a disservice. I’m sure it was meant well, but the overwhelming number of under-16 responses means the survey’s results are distorted and therefore almost meaningless.To disregard the children’s vote is as bad as giving it too much weight. Did the alderman attempt to mitigate the disproportionate response from the youngest group when she sent the results downtown? If so, how? If not, why? Was there any cover letter outlining her interpretation of the results?  Can we see it?

The survey-takers did not include one key demographic—those aged 17 to 25. These young adults are finishing high school, starting or in college or grad school, or just beginning their work lives, seeking jobs and opportunities to help get a start in life. Only seven people in this age range took the survey, and that is simply not representative of the neighborhood.

Transmitting highlights of the survey results to the community via the alderman’s weekly newsletter was in my opinion the wrong way to make the results available. For one thing, not everybody subscribes to her newsletter; for another, those who get print copies don’t have access to the full survey results (the link to those is a “click here” function, not a URL). I had hoped that the alderman and her Advisory Board would take the time to pull the results of her survey and the LEARN survey together so that the community—and the architects—might gather truly useful information that would be fully and fairly considered as the building plans move forward. I had also hoped that the alderman would then discuss these results with residents.

Instead we got an information dump on the weekend before Passover and Holy Week, with the alderman’s Devon office closed for three of the following five work days.

Time is rapidly slipping away and I wonder if it’s already too late for residents to play a significant role in this project. If the building is to be delivered on schedule—December 2018, 20 months from now—you can bet more decisions have already been finalized than we now know. Maybe the quest for  “community input” is nothing more than the sham already suspected.

The last community meeting was on March 20, more than three weeks ago. The “many, many meetings” promised are not being scheduled. Alderman?

 

 

 

 

The Alderman’s Library Survey

Results from the alderman’s survey, released yesterday, make interesting reading.  I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. According to the alderman’s newsletter, “more than 1,500 people have completed” her survey, reportedly “…a broad and diverse segment of the 50th Ward” including “speakers of all the major languages spoken in the neighborhood….”  [There was a question on the survey asking which languages respondents speak, but the survey itself was available online only in English.] The alderman says that she’s “…given the survey results to the project architects, so they can use your comments and input to design a library that fits the unique needs and desires…” of West Ridge residents.

A closer look at the results reveals that:

  • 68% of respondents don’t use the Northtown Library
    • 32% use a different library
    • 36% don’t use Northtown
    • 32% use Northtown.
  • 52% of respondents don’t even visit the Northtown Library
  • 37% of respondents are over age 50 (555 respondents based on 1,500 total)
    • Their votes were distributed most evenly across choices; the only group to highly rank adult reading space and community meeting rooms as top priorities
    • 63% want an outdoor reading space
    • 56% want a coffee bar
  • 23% of respondents are between ages 16 and 49 (345 respondents) with  (2%, or 7 respondents, between ages 16 – 25)
    • Overwhelmingly in favor of children’s space and technology; fewest votes for community meeting rooms and adult reading spaces (no surprises here–these are the prime parenting years)
    • 73% want an outdoor reading space
    • 63% want a coffee bar
  • 40% of respondents are children 16 and under (600 respondents)
    • Most votes for technology, children’s and teen spaces; very little interest in adult reading space; least interested in community meeting rooms
    • 83% want an outdoor reading space
    • 76% want a coffee bar

This is community input? The alderman passed this along to the architects as what the community wants? A coffee bar chosen by children? Results determined by people who don’t use the library? Who don’t even visit? Who apparently took the survey as a classroom exercise? If we build the coffee bar, will the children come?

I sometimes wonder if the alderman is paying attention to what she’s doing. It’s simply inexcusable to present her survey results to the architects when they are clearly just plain goofy.  It’s irresponsible of her to ignore the results of the LEARN survey, which was not heavily influenced by kids but was taken by thoughtful adults trying to provide serious input on a major community project. Had she gone to the community for input sooner, she might have designed a survey whose results could have been useful in planning the new library.

The alderman should have scrapped her survey results and started over.

Unless we want 600 kids to be the determining factor in what kind of library we get.

 

 

 

 

We Need Answers from Ald. Silverstein

Alderman Silverstein needs to hear from residents about two important matters related to the new library.

First, when is the next community meeting?  This needs to be scheduled as soon as possible, since the building is scheduled to be completed by December 2018, and it’s already April 2017. If residents are going to have meaningful input, it needs to happen NOW.

Second, who are the members of the alderman’s Advisory Board? The alderman must reveal their names and affiliations and tell us why they were chosen to represent the neighborhood, given that there was no call for volunteers. How were its members chosen from among all eligible residents? Further, because this Advisory Board meets with the alderman to discuss a government-funded building, the Minutes of those meetings should also be released to the community.

Contact the Alderman via phone (773-262-1050) or email (info@50thwardchicago.com).

NOTE: The alderman continues to use a private, untraceable email account for public business. According to the official City of Chicago Web site, her proper official email address, using the taxpayer-funded, city-provided secure system, is ward50@cityofchicago.org.

As regular readers know, the alderman is not subject to FOIA requests because individual aldermen are not “public bodies,” i.e., they cannot act alone. However, emails sent or received using her City-provided email address can be FOIA’d because the City is a public body.

A secret Advisory Board. Minutes from its meetings unreleased. Public business conducted via a private email address.

Doesn’t seem right, does it?

 

Mysteries of the New Library

The last community meeting on the new library was on March 20. On March 17, the alderman announced that she had formed an advisory committee to work with her on the new development. Two weeks later, she has still not divulged who is on the advisory committee or how they were chosen, nor has she explained why she did not call for volunteers from within the community to serve in that capacity. Why all the secrecy?

The whole project is shrouded in mystery, from the surprise announcement last October to the appointment of a secret advisory board two weeks ago. There have been two community meetings, which yielded no answers other than this-hasn’t-been-decided or that’s-still-on-the-table. The meetings are supposedly an opportunity for the community to provide input, but how can that be done when nobody knows anything and nobody in authority is taking notes? Did you notice that? Not a single staff member from the library, the CHA, or the alderman’s office could be seen taking notes. This suggests that everything has already been decided, the community meetings are mere window dressing.

Take the building design. The mayor chose which neighborhood would get which design, and the selection for West Ridge is too modern to complement the traditional architectural standards of our neighborhood. The alderman clearly got a lot of calls about it, because CHA’s Eugene Jones announced at the start of the last meeting that this was not the final design. What??? The mayor himself personally called members of the press to tout the designs, according to the Tribune‘s Blair Kamin. Is the design really subject to change?

Take the selection of residents for senior housing. Jones said he’d open the housing applications for the building in January 2018.  In response to a direct question from me about why West Ridge seniors already on the CHA waitlist have to reapply, he replied that those already waiting may not be “certified,” whatever that means. I didn’t understand his explanation. The way the system is supposed to work is that, once you’re approved for CHA housing, you go on a waitlist and get a unit when your turn comes up. Why should anyone have to re-apply? Jones joked that, since he’s turning 62 this year, if an apartment comes up he’d get it before anyone else. Funny. But, if true, that’s exactly the kind of political influence that we should guard against. Nobody should get an apartment in this development because they know or support the alderman or other political figures, or because politically-connected groups recommend them for residency. Will the secret advisory board help choose the residents? This is a serious matter that requires serious oversight, perhaps from the courts. There should be no political influence determining who gets housing.

Nobody knows what the secret advisory board is discussing. The alderman has no page on her bare-bones Web site dealing with the most important building project to occur in West Ridge since the Devon street scape. No minutes of any meetings. No names of any advisors. No numbers on the “fantastic responses to the 50th Ward Library Survey,” as touted in this week’s aldermanic newsletter. No mention of the LEARN Coalition library survey. No transparency, as usual.

And still no sign on the pile of rubble that will become the new library announcing that  there are, in fact, big plans for the site.

It’s hard to move forward when you’re covering your tracks.

 

 

What Does “Community Input” Mean in Chicago?

So much for community input. Late on Saturday the Mayor released drawings of the new library-senior housing building to be constructed at Pratt & Western. The alderman’s community input meeting is scheduled for tonight at 6:30 p.m. at Warren Park.

The alderman carefully says that what the community will give is “feedback” on the “current design.”  The lack of transparency in decision-making in Chicago, especially in the 50th Ward, has never been more obvious than in the matter of the new Northtown Library. Don’t expect any more transparency when we get to the matter of repurposing the old library, either.

We are stuck with a concept nobody asked for, a design competition with no conversations between the designer and the ultimate users, and a soon-to-be vacant public building whose next use will be or has been decided behind closed doors. Whatever the residents of West Ridge want is not as important as the need for political razzle-dazzle set to coincide with the 2019 elections.

The alderman’s role in all this is far from clear. Was she an active player? Did she speak for the neighborhood when the Mayor decided his bold concept overrode neighborhood needs? Or was she as surprised as everybody else to learn of his plans? As late as December 2015 the alderman had proposed a zoning change for the site approving it for automotive use. [Ord 02015-8470, introduced December 9, 2015; referred to City Council Zonong Committee; still pending.] How much in the loop was she if a mere ten months later the site was designated as the site of the new library? It’s also worth asking whether the City or one of its agencies has acquired the property yet.

Who asked for senior housing? Was the library-cohousing idea a concept in search of a site? Did our need for a new library mesh with the mayor’s need to create excitement to deflect attention from an increasingly dysfunctional and violent city? Was the rush to complete the building tied to the 2019 municipal elections, whose candidates will include both the alderman and the mayor?

Why didn’t anyone, including the alderman, discuss this concept with residents before the design competition?

I decided to look at the public record and create a timeline of what happened when. The information below is taken from public statements, press releases, news reports, and the alderman’s newsletter.

February 2015             LEARN (Library Enhancement and Renewal Network) Coalition formed by concerned individuals and community groups  seeking to bring a new library to West Ridge

March – Dec 2015      LEARN members begin to educate public on need for a new
library, create a Web site and Facebook page; meet with alderman

June – Aug 2016         LEARN members gather 2,500 signatures on petition in support of a new library

September 2016          LEARN leadership meets with alderman and presents petition

October 21, 2016        Mayor announces library-senior housing building to be constructed at Pratt & Western Avenues

October 21, 2016        Alderman reiterates announcement in email to residents (email includes picture)

October 28, 2016        Alderman reiterates Mayor’s announcement (newsletter includes picture)

November 4, 2016      Alderman announces community meting on November 14

November 11, 2016    Alderman reminds community of November 14 meeting

November 14, 2016    Alderman emails community meeting reminder; holds well-attended meeting; does not mention the work of LEARN Coalition. Says this is the first of “numerous community meetings” she plans to hold about library; later refers to       “…many, many meetings” to come; states “this is not the last meeting.” Meeting is attended by CHA and CPL officials, who offer handout demonstrating what library and housing units “could” look like. No specifics on either; alderman and both officials repeatedly state that “everything is on the table” and “we’ll figure it out.” LEARN Coalition Chair speaks at meeting and stresses need for “consistent communication,” asks that all parts of the community be involved in decision-making, and volunteers LEARN to help coordinate outreach efforts

November 18, 2016      Alderman reports on November 14 community meeting; does not mention LEARN Coalition (newsletter includes two pictures).

December 30, 2016      Alderman recaps 2016; mentions new library (newsletter includes picture)

January 20, 2017          Alderman announces Jan. 30 community input meeting

January 27, 2017          Alderman announces postponement of Jan. 30 meeting

February 27 , 2017        LEARN leaders meet with alderman, advise of LEARN survey, reiterate willingness to help gather community input

March 2, 2017                LEARN finalizes online community input survey, which is then released via email; survey availability announced on social media Web sites, blogs, and other networks

March 3, 2017                Alderman announces library is “proceeding on schedule” and that she “…will hold another public meeting to begin gathering community input, so we can all work together….”

March 10, 2017              Alderman announces March 20 meeting

March 17, 2017              Alderman reminds community of March 20 meeting; provides link to community input survey she developed with her heretofore unknown community “advisory board” but does not announce names of the advisory board’s members; mentions LEARN survey but does not provide link to it

March 17, 2017           Mayor calls various members of the press to talk about the exciting new library-housing designs he is about to release

March 18, 2017            Less than 24 hours after Alderman releases her community input survey, Mayor releases designs for new library-senior housing buildings to press

March 19, 2017            Chicago Tribune publishes drawings of new library designs and story by Blair Kamin, who notes that “…it’s difficult to judge at this stage whether the plans rise to the most important standard for projects of this type. Meeting human needs.” He later adds “What’s troubling is that the rapid-fire [design] competition did not allow for extensive community input. That’s still to come.”

March 20, 2017             Alderman sends email reminding community of meeting. Asks residents to complete library survey that she and her advisory council developed.

March 20, 2017             Meeting to provide community input on Northtown Library at Warren Park at 6:30 p.m.

From November 19, 2016, through March 19, 2017, the alderman did not hold any community meetings to discuss what  residents need and/or want in the new library, did not discuss forming nor ask the community at large for volunteers for her library “advisory board,” did not create any survey tool, and did not accept the LEARN Coalition’s offers of help with community outreach in this matter.  The alderman does not appear to have done anything to encourage the Mayor to step back and talk with residents before this project moved forward. She CHOSE not to speak to residents for four months, during which time she could have funneled our dreams as well as our concerns to the Mayor and the design team.

At no time during this four-month period did the alderman ever call a meeting with West Ridge senior citizens to discuss the new senior housing or to seek input, nor did she contact the City of Chicago’s Aging in Place Program that helps older adults age well within their communities. There was thus no input from older adults on housing supposedly designed with them in mind.

Are we really going to discuss these things NOW, after the building has been designed and the concept locked in place?

So much for community input.