The Second Aldermanic Forum

The second aldermanic candidate forum was held on Sunday, February 10, co-sponsored by the West Ridge Chamber of Commerce, the Jewish Neighborhood Development Council, and the League of Women Voters. Turnout was low, no doubt due to the weather forecast, but approximately 30 people attended. The day was very cold, and it started snowing during the event, so the hot coffee offered by the hosts was much appreciated

Zehra Quadri did not participate, citing a scheduling conflict, but she did not notify the organizers until just minutes before the forum started. It was beyond rude. The organizers, however, allowed her campaign manager, Bob Babcock, to deliver a short statement on Quadri’s behalf as part of the opening statements.

Silverstein had to leave by 3:25 p. m. so the forum was shortened to accommodate her.

Opening statements

Debra Silverstein repeated  her statements from the first forum, talking about the Devon streetscape, school improvements, and public safety  She beamed at the audience and said how proud she was to be the alderman of such a diverse ward.

The image consultants who have clearly helped her redefine herself for this election have wiped out all traces of spontaneity  and authenticity, not that she started with much of either. 

Andrew Rowlas described himself as a proactive progressive who believes strongly in democracy and community input. He noted that he has held leadership positions in several organizations and believes strongly in community empowerment–citizens should have a voice in governance. He would also like to build for the ward’s future.

The ward’s future, something you never hear Silverstein talk about. She and Ira have done nothing to create a ward organization that will nurture future leaders. On the other hand, that’s probably a good thing, since more leaders like them we don’t need.

Bob Babcock for Zehra Quadri: The community knows Zehra from her community service work. She has done a great deal  for the community. There’s still lots to be done, like economic development, affordable housing, and an end to violence.

Yes, Zehra has done a fine job helping many residents. But she has thus far been unable to expand her appeal. People need to see and hear from candidates. That’s why Silverstein poses for so many pictures. .

What do you think is the most pressing issue in the ward?

Rowlas: Lack of community involvement. He would address this initially through the participatory budgeting process.

Silverstein: Public safety. She said that crime is an issue throughout the United States, and once again referenced the Sikh temple attack in Wisconsin and the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre. She also said that people are afraid to go outside because they might be arrested by ICE. Her voice rising, she proclaimed that she had organized roll calls and the entire community stood together in solidarity  against violence and against hate and for love and she was so proud to be representing this diverse community.

It was pure hokum. Silverstein reminded me of the lounge singer with the phony persona who turns in a mediocre performance but ends his act by singing “America the Beautiful” as the audience stands and cheers. The singer basks in glory, but the audience is not cheering him or even the song. They’re cheering for themselves. It’s rank emotional  manipulation but it works.

What is your plan to expand the variety of retailing options in the ward?

Silverstein: She cited “really good stores” that have opened in the ward, like TJ Maxx and Five Below, and claims that new stores and restaurants are opening. She cited Malabar Gold and Diamonds for choosing to open its first US jewelry store on Devon.  She  hopes the new library will attract business to Western Avenue but said Western is “challenging.” She also claims she has ” enlisted” the City to help her with economic development.

Eight years as alderman and she’s only now asking the City for help filling vacant storefronts and advising on economic development? Rowlas has repeatedly said he would first ask the community what kinds of stores it wants in the neighborhood, Silverstein never mentions resident input in her plans. She also did not mention the “spirited economic development plan” she promised in 2011; it has yet to materialize. Replacing one failed sari shop or  Indian restaurant with another is not economic progress. Yes, Malabar Diamonds opened, but Andrazz Jewelers closed–neither the retailing district nor the neighborhood gained anything. Silverstein also failed to address adding variety to neighborhood shopping districts. She remains clueless about what kind of shopping and entertainment opportunities residents want, and she has no intention of asking them.

Rowlas:  There are more than 100 vacant storefronts throughout the neighborhood. He would work with the Chamber of Commerce and other groups to identify businesses that residents want and attempt to attract them to the neighborhood. He views economic development as a continuous process, not a matter of celebrating the occasional store opening. 

Would you be willing to meet with community groups to discuss spending discretionary funding (menu money)? 

Rowlas: “Absolutely.”  He noted that 11 Wards in the city use participatory budgeting to allocate their ward’s discretionary funding, “and it works.” He sees participatory budgeting as a way to involve the community in decision-making.

Silverstein: She repeated her “concerns” that, even if 2, 000 people took part in the participatory budgeting process, they would not reflect the 55, 000 people living in the ward.  Instead, she encourages people to call her office with their suggestions for menu money spending. Her office compiles lists of these requests and conducts field surveys to determine which ones will be funded.

Silverstein’s response reflects her old-fashioned ward boss approach. It demonstrates that she does not understand the participatory budgeting process and that she prefers a labor-intensive focus on clerical work instead of spending her time leading the community. Why is having Silverstein and her staff choose the menu money projects more representative than having 2,000 residents choose them? The truth is that Silverstein opposes any progressive ideas that would lessen her grip on power. Her “concerns” are nonsense. 

Would you create a community planning / zoning council?

Silverstein: She claimed that she created several mini committees on economic development at the end of last summer, and has held several meetings with them. She further claimed that the committee members come from all over the ward, and that she has started to “implement” some of their recommendations. She put their work on hold until after the election so that it would not become “politicized.” 

Let’s review. Silverstein is concerned  that only 2,000 people voluntarily taking part in participatory budgeting would not “reflect” the entire Ward. Yet she has no problem with handpicking a few residents to serve on secret mini-committees that recommend projects for economic and community development. She proudly proclaims that no zoning or community development takes place without a public meeting  yet “implements” these secret recommendations with no public discussion. If these mini committees actually exist, it is highly unlikely the community will ever know the names of their members. We have been waiting two years to learn who served on her secret committee for the new library. 

Why must Silverstein keep her activities in behalf of residents secret? What criteria does she use to select the members of these secret committees? Who do you have to know to get appointed? Who “recommends” appointees to Silverstein? Remember the line, “We don’t want nobody nobody sent.”  Silverstein doesn’t want “nobody” either. 

This approach typifies Silverstein’s outmoded way of thinking. She prefers to address ward issues as individual problems to be solved rather than parts of a larger system has no longer works efficiently–or democratically. She prefers to keep the larger community at bay while she and a few handpicked supporters define and determine the ward’s priorities.

Silverstein then added that whenever a zoning change is requested, her “first response is, we have to have a community meeting, I have to hear from my constituents about this.” She claimed there were “four or five” meetings on the new library, at least four meetings on the streetscape and numerous community meetings  on zoning .

Even for a machine hack like Silverstein, these untruths are whoppers. See the timeline of public meetings  on the new library. Note that there was one two-hour meeting and two one-hour meetings on a building expected to endure for 30 years.The City held two meetings on the Devon streetscape, and it was clear that residents’ concerns were irrelevant. The City insisted it had traffic studies and plans for parking.

Gridlock on Devon on a Sunday afternoon. Note that vehicles block the intersection. This is Devon & Fairfield, looking west.

I live just north of the east-west alley behind Devon, and my neighbors and I tried to tell the alderman and the City that reducing the traffic lanes would drive cars and trucks into that alley. They wouldn’t listen. Dozens of cars ignore the “No Thruway” signs and enter that alley every day. It’s become a highway because drivers can’t stand the traffic jams on  Devon. Vehicles often blast through the alley from California to Rockwell, rarely signaling their presence at forks in the alleys.. Devon buses are delayed and workers arrive late, often missing connections to bus and rail lines. The street is now too narrow for buses and trucks to safely pass one another.

I have never been invited to a community zoning meeting. I have never even seen any announcement of a community zoning meeting. 

We still don’t know whether she would include the community in an economic development planning board or create a zoning committee. She chose not to answer the question. But based on her aversion to contact with or input from residents other than members of her secret committees, you know what the answer is. No, she won’t.

Rowlas: He is unaware of these mini committees or of any public meetings on economic development held by the alderman. He would definitely establish a community economic development planning board and also a zoning council. He believes that community input is necessary, adding as an example participatory budgeting, which started out small but grew as more people become used to participating in the process. Rowlas believes that leadership should come from the bottom up, not the top down, and thinks that too many things occur in the ward that people don’t know about.

I think Rowlas has offered a key insight: this community is not used to participating in civic life because the Silversteins have effectively co-opted or thwarted all attempts at community participation. It’s worth noting that the public had four hours of input into the new library, while the alderman’s secret committee had many times that. The meetings on the Devon – McCormick development were a sham, all decisions having been reached before the public was invited to give its meaningless opinions. If residents truly had meaningful input on community business, such participation would grow. It’s the last thing Silverstein wants.

How would you attract and retain businesses?

Rowlas:  He repeated that he would first work with the community to determine the kinds of businesses residents want and avoid having businesses that will not thrive in the neighborhood. He noted that a business like Trader Joe’s will do its own research to determine if this neighborhood is the right one for it.

Rowlas sees the lack of variety in retailing options as a problem, citing the more than 50 groceries and 30 beauty shops lining Devon Avenue. He said it could become an international shopping district but can be currently viewed that way only in a very narrow sense.

Where are the toy stores? Shoe stores?  Casual clothing shops? Candy stores? Art galleries? Italian and Greek restaurants? Clothing stores for kids?  Can you buy winter coats, hats, scarves, and gloves? Where’s the florist? The café? Non-religious bookstore? Stationers? What if you want better-quality clothes than those available  at discounters? These things–and many more–are missing. Residents must shop outside the ward to get them.

Silverstein: She personally thinks Devon is an international shopping district. She said her office works hard to help business but that unfortunately sometimes businesses set up shop before learning that they will have zoning and licensing issues, and then her office has to help them get organized properly.

Silverstein just doesn’t get it. Buying cucumbers and cell phones from merchants from Iran, India, and Syria is not an international shopping experience. After eight years in office, she has failed to put in place any economic plan or process for new enterprises that wish to set up shop in the 50th Ward. Her hand-picked SSA has failed to work with commercial landlords to prevent them from making the same mistakes over and over and over. For example, there is one storefront on Devon that in less than 10 years has been home to four failed sari shops–one combined with a dental office–then housed a nonprofit grocery, and is  about to become a mattress and furniture store. In the last month, two other storefronts selling mattresses and furniture have opened on the next block. The alderman brags about inviting residents to special events and ribbon cuttings as business builders, but without retailing that appeals to the entire community, it’s just lipstick on a pig. “Special events” held in a parking lot?  Unique to the 50th Ward, where for some reason the parks the alderman touts are off-limits for special events. 

The differences in the candidates’ approaches could not be more clear. Rowlas wants to work with the community to create an economic development plan. Silverstein wants to fill storefronts with any business that wants to move in, and does not want any community input except for what comes from her secret committees.

How would you balance the city budget? What would you cut?

Silverstein: The big issue right now is pensions  but “pensions are a promise” that have to be kept. She thinks that new revenue could be found from expanding gambling and legalizing pot as long as proper safeguards are in place. She didn’t say what those might be. She also thinks that casinos would help the hospitality industry, filling hotels and restaurants thus generating tax revenue

Rowlas: A graduated city income tax has worked very well in New York. The state collects the money and transfers it to the city. He believes it is unfair to taxi drivers that Uber and Lyft services are not taxed, because taxi medallions are extremely expensive, yet Uber and Lyft drivers do not have to buy any equivalent. He also thinks a temporary commuter tax is a possibility. Rowlas noted that income from selling pot and from gambling is not reliable. He does not believe in taxing groceries, non- prescription medicine, low-cost clothing, or shoes.

Silverstein should read Crain’s Chicago Business on hotel building in Chicago.

How should we address the coming pension shortfall?

Rowlas: The Center for Taxation & Budget Accountability recommends issuing bonds and putting the proceeds into the pension funds.

Silverstein: Silverstein was annoyed at having to “repeat” herself and gave the same answer she gave to the previous question

Do you favor expanding TIFs to include large businesses relocating to Chicago?

Silverstein:  TIFs should be reformed, they’re supposed to be used for blighted areas only. We need more transparency and developers need to state their intentions clearly.

Rowlas:  TIFs should be reformed. He hopes Silverstein will vote against the Lincoln Yards development because that’s something the new mayor and the new council should deal with. Rowlas also thinks that a TIF earmarked for a specific project should end when the project is completed and not at the end of the standard 23-year time frame. He noted that one of the problems with TIFs is that they divert money from schools and parks and libraries.

Do you favor a City or public bank?

Rowlas: Yes. North Dakota has had a successful public bank for 100 years. It would be a tough sell in Chicago because so many banks are headquartered here.

Silverstein: Undecided. There’s only one public bank. She needs more information.

The alderman should read this explanation about the work of public banks and this article on public banks in the U.S. and internationally. 

What do you plan to do about the ward’s aging infrastructure? Lead pipes?

Silverstein:  The city needs to take action The city gives out test kits but people don’t always return them. Ordinances should be passed to ban lead and lead materials from new housing and use in major renovations. The city needs more revenue so perhaps there could be a cost-sharing program with property owners like there is with sidewalks.

Rowlas:  He was able to place a clean water referendum on the ballot last November in three precincts in the 50th ward. It received overwhelming support–more than 95%. He thinks the first step is to determine how extensive the problem is. He would then hold public hearings and develop a plan to address the issue.

What would you do to improve public transit?

Rowlas: We need to encourage the use of public transit to alleviate environmental damage and traffic congestion. Cost may be a factor. He’d like to see better ways of communicating with waiting passengers about where the buses are.

Rowlas is certainly right about the poor communication between CTA and its riders. Many of the notification systems within the bus shelters don’t work and CTA Bus Tracker is too often unreliable.

Silverstein:  She’s had many conversations with the CTA. Their process is to study ridership levels to determine where transit can be expanded. We don’t have rail transit which is unfortunate because she’d like to make it easier for people to get to Devon Avenue.

She can’t do anything to improve transit in the ward? She bragged recently that when she saw the state of Rogers school, she picked up the phone, called the mayor, and told him, “we can’t have this,” then obtained $47M million for the ward’s schools. But she can’t do that for public transit riders?  The truth is that when Silverstein doesn’t want to do anything she relies on the argument that it’s the bureaucracy that stops her. 

It was little noted at the time, but Silverstein was one of three aldermen who last year proposed expanding the #155 Devon bus to the west as far as the Metra station at Caldwell, giving more people access to the Little India shopping on Devon. But she can’t do anything about getting the #93 California or #96 Lunt to run on Sundays and holidays so workers and shoppers can get to Evanston and Lincolnwood?

Do you support the establishment of a police accountability board?

Silverstein: As a member of the city council, she just signed off on the Obama Justice Department’s consent decree. She thinks it was the best option.

Rowlas: He favors the Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC) largely because it’s democratically elected. He thinks that more civilian control over the police will improve police – community relations.

In August 2016, the city held various meetings on police reform in every sector of the city. Silverstein was the only alderman in our area not to attend. She scheduled a property tax appeal session with Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin for that night. She could have moved this session to another night but chose not to. She evaded her responsibility to the city and to the 50th Ward, many of whose residents attended the session. As  alderman, Silverstein is one of only 50 people who would vote on the final agreement. But rather than join her fellow aldermen at the only north side session, she chose to spend her time doing a job Larry Suffredin can do in his sleep.

Would you support ranked-choice voting  in Chicago run-off elections ?

Rowlas: Ranked-choice voting works in other cities.

Silverstein: She doesn’t have enough information to decide.

It works this way, alderman.

Do you favor reopening and expanding the mental health clinics?

Silverstein: Yes. At the time she voted to close the clinics, she was told that they were not at full capacity. She also noted that all 50 alderman voted to close the clinics.

That’s Silverstein ducking for cover from a decision she made that went bad. It wasn’t just me, everybody else did it, too. 

Rowlas: He served on the board of a mental health clinic when he lived in Indiana. Yes, reopen and expand. The matter should never have come before the City Council.

Many routine matters are handled by the aldermen. Would you support allowing City departments to make decisions on matters governed by ordinance?

Rowlas: City government needs to be reformed, not sure it’s efficient. We have too many aldermen compared to cities like New York, which has 15 council members who focus on legislative issues rather than administrative tasks..

Silverstein: No. The aldermen know their wards best.

Silverstein want to continue doing her part-time clerical job while earning $120,000 per year and collecting a fat pension if she is re-elected. 

Would you support permitting City Council committees to elect their own chairmen rather than consulting with / having them appointed by the mayor? 

Silverstein: She thinks it’s a good idea. A new mayor and new council will be more independent. She’d like to see more diversity and more women.

Rowlas: We  are supposed to have a strong council but we don’t. We have rubber stampers who do whatever the mayor wants. There isn’t a lot of deliberation. He thinks one reason for that is because the mayor has so much money in his political fund that he can help elect people who will support him.

Would you support restoring the city’s Department of the Environment?

Rowlas: Yes. Has two overall concerns, climate change and income inequality.  We need to restore this department and really look at ways carbon is emitted and how we can stop it. We need to look at ways to make Chicago green, provide clean water, get rid of lead pipes, pollution, and address health issues.

Silverstein: Yes. She also supports it for public health reasons and is proud that in our ward there are a lot of requests for solar panels.

Since the 50th Ward is so diverse, multilingual and multicultural, why is there no public art or cultural arts center to reflect that?

Silverstein: We’re about to get a “fantastic” new mural in the new library, and we have a sculpture in Stone Park, and we’re looking at getting another sculpture for Thillens Park. She’s looking forward to getting more public art in the 50th Ward.

Silverstein is so clueless about art that when the sculpture was selected for Stone Park, Silverstein mistakenly thought that the community had a choice of three sculptures and asked residents to let her know which of the three they preferred,  adding that she couldn’t decide which one she liked best. In fact, the three pieces joined together to form one sculpture.

As for adding to the sculptures at Thillens Park, Silverstein is apparently unaware that Thillens Park belongs to Lincolnwood. It is leased by the Chicago Park District. It’s the Park District and Lincolnwood that will decide what if any sculptures are added, not Silverstein.

Notice that she didn’t answer the question of a cultural arts center for the 50th Ward. Residents have been working  to secure the old  Northtown library for a Cultural Arts Center. There have been rumors for the past two years that Silverstein has already promised the building to the Jewish community for either a synagogue, a school, or a social service agency. The Indo-American Center would also like to acquire it.

There will be no cultural center in the ward as long as Silverstein is alderman. She has a vested interest in keeping the various ethnicities and religions in their silos. Getting together in a cultural endeavor could mean finding common ground politically, and this is a danger for her.

Rowlas: Art is an important aspect of the community. We don’t have anything like a cultural arts center here (in the 50th). It’s important to support our local artists and  a cultural arts center will support the community, our local artists, and put on productions that will attract others who will spend money in our retailing corridors.

Should the City support a Green New Deal similar to the one proposed at the federal level? 

Rowlas: Yes.

Silverstein: Yes.

Do you support term limits for aldermen?

Silverstein: “Elections are term limits.”

When Ira held a town hall meeting in 2016, I asked if he would support term limits for state office. He replied that term limits are elections, that people have an opportunity to vote for someone else. The Silversteins share this opinion with most machine politicians–throw us out, if you can. Well, Ira’s gone.

Rowlas: Yes, two terms for mayor and three terms for aldermen. He would also term-limit committee chairmanships. He believes in publicly financed elections to encourage more people to get involved because elections are too expensive for most people who would like to run.

What would you do about the increase in crime in the 50th Ward?

Rowlas: Relatively speaking, our community is one of the safest in the city. That doesn’t mean we don’t have crimes. Economic development would help deter crime by providing stability and jobs and an expanded tax base would help the schools.

Silverstein: There are all kinds of crimes–shootings and property crimes. She receives calls about crime throughout the city. Many crimes are preventable. She would educate people about calling the police. She intends to continue to work with the police. “I will make sure the police do their job.” There are 38 new cops this year alone. She’s advocating for more.

Yes, that’s what she said. Do you believe that 50th Ward residents are calling Silverstein about crime in other areas? Do you believe the police will slack off if Silverstein doesn’t crack the whip over them? She keeps stoking the fear that there are criminals on every block. This is nonsense. 

Do you support rent control?

Silverstein: She’s “open” to considering it but is concerned that the affordable housing stock would be diminished with rent control.

What “affordable housing stock”? Those 44 units above the library? As long as tenants don’t break the rules, they can live in those apartments until death. So what is Silverstein talking about?

Rowlas: Yes. There are ways to make housing affordable and help landlords, too, through grants and loans to maintain property..

Would you support shifting affordable housing decisions from the ward level to the city?

Rowlas: Yes. Central control would be more efficient. He thinks affordable housing should be extended to the middle class as well.

Silverstein:  She thinks there should be a “combined effort.” She doesn’t think “somebody downtown” should decide but sees community liaisons as helpful with community input.

What Silverstein means is that she’s kept affordable housing out so far, and she will continue to do so while paying lip service to affordability.

Several recently published studies highlight the role that racial and ethnic segregation play in Chicago, leading to disparities in education and job opportunities. What is the role of the City Council in addressing this issue? 

Silverstein:  The 50th Ward is flourishing. Our schools are filled to capacity and with only one exception are all rated +1. She meets with an advocates for 50th Ward school principals and there is $40M coming into the ward schools.  She’d like to see that throughout the city.  She wants all children to get the education they need to be successful.

See how she ducked the question while appealing to the audience’s pride in the 50th Ward?

Rowlas:  We need to look at how to promote more tolerance and acceptance of different groups among the citizenry. Some things are illegal, like segregation. This city is experiencing an exodus of people right now and part of this is the search for opportunity. This is a serious issue and needs a top-down approach.

Are there too many aldermen? Should we reduce the number to 15?

Rowlas: Yes. Some services performed by the aldermen would be more efficient if performed by the City. Some aldermanic functions need to be broadened to include the whole city in order to become efficient.  We need to look at our city government and try to make it ready for this century. There’s been talk in recent years of reducing the city council to 25 members but perhaps we could go lower. New York is much larger and has only 15 council members.

Silverstein: No. Being alderman is a very difficult 24/7 job and  it’s really important to constituents that they get their services and needs fulfilled. She really thinks that it should be based on numbers  so we should look at the census. She is concerned  that if we lowered the number of aldermen to15 it would take longer to get service requests in.

Yes, this is what she said. Silverstein cannot let go of the idea that service requests should go through her office. She does not accept that it’s more efficient to use the City 311 service directly. She is so bogged down by routine clerical work that she cannot imagine her office without it.  While other alderman have the time and interest to devote to cultural and economic affairs within their wards, Silverstein is focused on delivery of routine city services. This is partly a reflection of her vocational training. CPAs focus on details. Silverstein likes having power but is incapable of the broader vision required of a leader. 

Why do you want to be / continue to be alderman?

Silverstein: Loves her job, loves meeting  with the community, and loves how much has been accomplished in the last 8 years.

Rowlas: He wants to be alderman to work for the common good of all residents. He would like to break down the silos that separate us. He would hold more community meetings to discuss neighborhood issues, and would engage the community in governance. Rowlas believes we should celebrate our diversity. He also believes we should end the secretive way of operating and create jobs for the community. Rowlas believes elections should be about democracy.

How would you encourage young families to move into the ward?

Rowlas: We  have good schools. We are somewhat underdeveloped, and need to create economic and recreational opportunities. There are no places for families to socialize. There are no toy stores. He would establish those things.

Silverstein: Thinks the ward is flourishing. The schools are full and most are rated 1+. There’s just one school that fluctuates. She doesn’t want to see anybody leave the ward because of high housing costs.

Closing Statements

Silverstein: It’s an honor and a privilege to be alderman. A lot has been accomplished but there’s a lot still to do. She will continue to work with school principals, the police, and on economic development.

Rowlas: He believes in working for the common good, bridging the silos that keep residents separated. He would hold more community meetings and encourage civic engagement. He thinks we should celebrate our diversity. He would create jobs. He supports CPAC.

 

 

 

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The Groundbreaking Non-Event

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s how long he stayed.

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

 

 

The Groundbreaking for Park 526

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

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

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

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

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

But will it work again?

Park 526

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It will be a nice addition to the neighborhood.

A Little Hysteria, a Lot of Hooey

One year ago residents of West Ridge were alerted to what we were assured was a situation in urgent need of community action. The old Cineplex Theater had become “an eyesore,” a “magnet” for criminal activity, including taggers and burglars, a safety hazard, and a blight on the community. The property was deteriorating, and something had to be done immediately; the community was invited to come together to make a decision about the future of the Devon-Lincoln-McCormick gateway to West Ridge.

To briefly recap, the theater’s owner, Cheder Luubavitch Hebrew Day School, had a buyer (Banner Storage Group), that had agreed to pay the school exactly what it had paid for the property some ten years earlier. The alderman, officially neutral (even first-time observers know what that means), held a couple of community meetings at which the plan was presented by school officials and David St. Pierre, Executive Director of the City’s Water Reclamation District (WRD). The WRD owned the parking lot on the property and had priced itself out of the commercial market by demanding huge fees to rent the lot, a factor in the theater’s closing. The MRD now agreed to lease the parking lot to the community for a nominal sum and to replace the lot with green space for residents if the sale to Banner was approved.

A community meeting packed with direct beneficiaries of the sale voted approval of the proposal to sell to Banner.  If you weren’t paying attention, you might have thought you’d seen democracy in action.

Anyway, the school got its money, Banner got its site, the community got a garbage-strewn green space, and the alderman got a press release touting economic development as well as pictures for her weekly newsletter and year-end report.  She also got a $1,000 contribution from Banner to her political fund as well as a donation of $250 from one of the school’s leaders.

Sniffing the air yet? No, it’s not your imagination.

One year later, the site is an eyesore with a front lawn. The exaggerated statements about the property’s condition, its attraction for criminals, and the need for urgent corrective action by the community were just a cover to deflect criticism about turning the site into a storage facility.

A little hysteria, a lot of hooey. The site is no better today than it was a year ago. It’s just no longer a problem.

[In December 2015, Banner received Special Warranty Deeds on both the theater site and the car wash from Cheder Luubavitch Hebrew Day School. Perhaps construction will start soon.]

Here’s what the site looks like today (photos taken Sunday, February 28, 2016).

 

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 Done Deal

It was a done deal after all. A 600- to 900-unit storage facility will open at Devon and McCormick despite community opposition.

An observer who knew nothing about democracy might think he’d seen it in action last night. Citizens engaged in debate about the merits of a planned economic development, followed by a vote to determine whether or not that development would proceed.

In truth, it was a farce all too typical of what passes for citizen involvement in 50th Ward decision-making. The outcome had been determined in advance, and was guaranteed by packing the room with direct beneficiaries of the disputed development. The outnumbered but vocal opponents were politely listened to and just as politely ignored.

Ald. Silverstein opened the meeting by stating that discussion would be limited to the question of the storage facility, and said that she was unaware of any other proposals for the site. She introduced Rabbi Wolf, whom she described as “the school’s owner,” and he gave a highly selective history of the acquisition and ownership of the site by Cheder Lubavitch Hebrew Day School. [The school has owned the property since 2008, and had an interest in it since summer of 2007.]

According to the rabbi, although 174 businesses expressed interest in acquiring the property once the school decided to sell it, the exceptionally high rent charged for the parking lot by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) was a deal-breaker in every case. Raising his voice dramatically, and waving his index finger in the air, the rabbi declared that “…there is one, and only one, business [that doesn’t need the parking lot].” That would be—wait for it—a storage facility.

But, the rabbi said, he didn’t want “a box” to replace the theater, he wanted a “state of the art” storage facility. Apparently this was meant to show his concern for the community.

The rabbi’s performance was at times near comical in its exaggeration, but met with rousing applause from the two-thirds of the room that will benefit directly from the sale of the property to Banner Storage Group.

The rabbi was followed by Gary Delaney from Banner, who said that Banner will demolish the car wash and remodel the theater site, which will lose its rooftop heating and cooling equipment, thus making the building somewhat less high even though it will have five floors instead of the present three. The drawings presented depict a boxy, multi-level building whose signage was immediately questioned by an audience member. Would the signs be tasteful, she asked. The response was classic: Signage will comply with city requirements. Pressed a bit further, he reluctantly allowed that signage would be “tasteful.” We’ll see.

He described the average storage facility customer as a woman who wants easy access to her property as she goes about her day. He said that as homes get smaller, storage facilities are needed to store things like snow skis in summer and bikes in winter. An audience member questioned whether another storage facility is needed, referring to the near-empty 180-unit Safeguard storage facility at Peterson and California, which the man said he understood is only 7% leased. Delaney responded by stating that he used to be VP for Safeguard; that he hired the manager of the California/Peterson facility; that he thinks it has about 600 units; and that he didn’t know what percentage of units were occupied.

I’d call this nonsense, since nobody opening a business would not know about his immediate competition in detail, but in this case it’s probably true. It’s the same line of thinking that has given us 50 groceries and 22 cell phone stores in 24 blocks on Devon Avenue. It’s the mentality that says that any kind of business is better than no business at all. It’s what happens when a neighborhood has to take whatever it can get.

David St. Pierre, Executive Director of MWRD, stated that the property was evaluated by MWRD at $2M, and that MWRD is required by statute to charge a percentage of that evaluation as rent for the parking lot, currently $120,000 per year. He had stated at the previous meeting on this development that changing the statute would be difficult and time-consuming.

Think about that: A law that impedes economic development cannot be changed. Ever. Yet I understand that the law was changed to favor the school when it bought the property. More on that in a later post.

The attorney for the school, in a voice choked with emotion, declared that the school considered the hulking storage facility to be “fair” to the community, noting that “nobody is going to get rich” on the sale, although he admitted that the school will get back every penny of its investment and then some. He pleaded with opponents of the storage facility to understand that he himself had spent “dozens” of hours trying to find another solution. He did not say if he volunteered his time or was paid for it.

St. Pierre has “a contract ready to go.” The Chicago Park District will manage the property, although it has no funds for playground equipment. Present plans “call for only grass and trees.” One audience member asked Delaney if Banner would donate some money for that purpose. Trapped, he agreed to donate “the first $10,000.” Another round of applause from the winning side.

Other questions from the please-no-storage community:

Can the neighborhood get a set of plans for the site? No. Nothing’s been approved yet, said the alderman, and that’s the reason for the meeting. Not to fear: Banner is ready to submit plans and can start work this year. More cheers from the school’s supporters.

Won’t a storage facility contribute to a lack of vibrancy in the area, since many stores in the Lincoln Village shopping center are vacant? wondered another audience member. She noted that, should the storage facility go through, we’d no doubt be back for another community meeting about the shopping center’s troubles. She was listened to politely. The response was more praise for storage.

The alderman announced a vote. Since the school had packed the audience, the school won. Victory was declared, cheers erupted, and the wider community lost another round to special interests.

The property will be returned to the tax rolls after its 10-year absence, but it will be interesting to see what tax breaks and taxpayer support Banner will receive for the project. There is an existing TIF that includes the Lincoln Village Shopping Center, but it’s not clear if this property is included.

Whether it might have been more fair to hold a series of community meetings is now moot. The audience at the first meeting knew instinctively that this was a done deal, and that any follow-up meeting would be a sham. And it was. But neither the school nor the alderman wanted real outreach to the community. The deal might not have gone through if they had, so the storage proponents raised false alarms about crime and rushed the project through, then packed the room to ensure a favorable vote.

Under the Silversteins’ leadership, civic participation in the ward has declined markedly. Even allowing for the high percentage of undocumented residents (10-12% according to the 2010 census), the number of residents who bother to vote has reached a new low, with nearly 4,000 fewer voters in this year’s aldermanic election than turned out when Debra Silverstein ran the first time in 2011, and just shy of 2,000 fewer voters this time around than voted in the subsequent run-off.

People don’t participate in civic activities and don’t vote when they believe they don’t have a stake in the outcome and/or that their participation is meaningless. Roughly 125 people out of a ward of 55,000 residents voted for a storage facility. Virtually all of them had a personal stake in the outcome, since the Cheder Lubavitch school is the sole beneficiary of the sale.

That’s 0.23% of the population of West Ridge. That’s what passes for democracy in the 50th Ward.

Devon-McCormick Redevelopment, Round 2

Ald. Silverstein has called a meeting to discuss with residents the redevelopment of the abandoned 1-6 Cineplex and adjacent car wash at Devon and McCormick. The meeting is scheduled for Monday, April 20, at 6:30 p.m. at West Ridge Elementary School, 6700 North Whipple.  This is your chance to tell the alderman that you want a cultural center, not a storage facility, as the western gateway to our neighborhood.

I understand from a posting on NextDoor West Ridge that other potential uses are being considered for the site. No specifics at this writing, although I’ve asked what those other developments might be and who is driving them. You can read the thread here.

It’s important that as many residents as possible attend, especially if you’d prefer that the neighborhood have at least one cultural institution, just one place where we could celebrate the arts and artists and cultures that are so important in building community. Those of us opposed to yet another storage facility need to be represented. This is not a decision that should be made without real input from the community.

Even though the alderman didn’t approve this project right away, I suspect that it is a done deal. I was told last week by someone who should know that the alderman has been getting calls telling her that she needs to approve the storage facility or some of her support will disappear. Frankly, given her victory in February, I don’t see how any threats to withdraw support would have any effect. Most of her campaign contributions came from outside the ward, although she did accept money from business interests within the ward and from individual resident donors.

No matter what she decides, Silverstein will disappoint a significant number of residents. Which part of her constituency loses on this issue will be a major indicator of the ward’s direction over the next four years.

[See related posts, “Storage Facility or Cultural Center?,” “West Ridge: No Cultural Institutions, Lots of Storage,” and “More Storage Coming” for the history of this proposed development.]