Holiday Lights?

Devon Avenue has been decorated for the holidays that dare not be named.

While commercial districts in other neighborhoods are welcoming shoppers of all faiths and decorating to celebrate the season, the overlords of Devon Avenue–our unelected SSA Commissioners–have once again opted to celebrate diversity by pointedly ignoring Chanukah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa.

The  “holiday” decorations chosen by the SSA– flashing lights of blue, red, green, and white– signify nothing, impart no holiday spirit, acknowledge no religious heritage, and do not reflect either the joy of the season or the spiritual renewal experienced by most of the ward’s residents at this time of year. Instead, they contribute additional gaudiness to a street whose storefront doors and windows are already ablaze with neon. The overall effect is that of a long, long strip mall, every intersection resembling the entrance to a gas station.

Looking eastward on Devon from Republic Bank.

The SSA seems to think that only Hindu holidays should be celebrated. This is wrong. We are a neighborhood of many faiths. Today, Roman Catholics will begin the Advent season,  a time of prayer and preparation for the birth of Christ. On Sunday evening our Jewish neighbors will begin celebrating the eight days of Chanukah, the Festival of Lights. Beginning on December 26, African-Americans and African immigrants will join together for Kwanzaa, a weeklong celebration of African values and culture. Many Greek, Russian, and Serbian Orthodox Christians in our ward  will observe Christmas on January 7.

This rich cultural and spiritual heritage is ignored by the SSA. The colors of the season are present but their display  signifies nothing to anyone.

The SSA plans to install mandalas at Western and Devon. Why not a community Christmas tree?  Why not a public menorah lighting? Why not a winter festival that includes the entire community? Twenty percent of this Ward is Hispanic–where’s the Posada? Faith isn’t required to appreciate pageantry.

Contrast  the 50th Ward’s approach  to this time of year with that of the 41st Ward. Alderman Napolitano invites residents to  eight non-religious holiday events occurring in December. Two of those are sponsored by the local historical society,  including a craft boutique / cafe and a holiday house tour with or without lunch. One local Chamber of Commerce sponsors both a Winter Wine Stroll and a holiday dinner as well as a rewards program for shoppers who support local businesses. Another Chamber brought the Santa Express and is holding an ugly Christmas sweater contest  as well as  a community-wide scavenger hunt  for the weekend before New Year’s. One park council has organized a  holiday bazaar. There’s also a Toys for Tots campaign that’s a joint project between a local park council and the friends of the local library.

This level of community doesn’t happen without leadership from the alderman.  It’s true that the 41st Ward doesn’t have the diversity of the 50th, but I think that just gives us greater opportunities to explore other faiths and cultures and to share the joys of America’s unique  cultural and religious heritage with our newest immigrants.

Silverstein and the SSA are not interested. Devon celebrates Diwali and nothing else. The SSA can put loudspeakers in a parking lot but not a Christmas tree, a menorah, or even a sign that reads “Season’s Greetings.”

Merry Christmas? Happy Chanukah? Habari Gani?

Bah, humbug.

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Movie Night on Devon — Another Silverstein/SSA Failure

Crowd attends Devon Movie Night. It ebbed and flowed during the event, but at no time were there more than two dozen people. Don’t they look comfortable?

Movie Night on Devon, another noisemaker in a parking lot sponsored by the alderman and the Special Services Area #43 (SSA #43), attracted a crowd of two dozen people on a windy and chilly October Thursday night. Most were kids, many unattended by adults, and most were far more interested in the free popcorn than the movie. Many left before the movie ended because it was so cold and the popcorn machine shut down.

Who can blame them? What kind of organization seeks to build goodwill and increase business by inviting people to sit on asphalt on a 57-degree October night to watch an old movie?

What insensitive louts would consider placing this screen and loudspeakers alongside other people’s homes? The Devon SSA #43 and the alderman, of course.

The SSA’s characteristic lack of attention to detail was evident throughout the evening. The event, scheduled on a school night, was barely underway when the screen-loudspeaker combination blew a fuse. Near the end of the movie, the popcorn machine overheated and blew another one. Kids who had gorged on thirst-inducing popcorn were disappointed to learn that the SSA had not provided any water. There were no trash cans for the empty popcorn bags or the plastic wrappers from the giveaway plastic sunglasses, so the lot soon resembled the rest of Devon–littered with bags and food garbage. A couple of SSA big shots showed up to check on attendance.

A sharper view of the proximity to housing. The alderman wouldn’t dream of doing this where she lives, nor would the SSA members. But the impact of these events on the quality of life for residents here before the parking lot was built has never concerned them.

To his credit, Robert Taylor of Republic Bank had the excessive volume turned down, but it had to be loud to be heard over Devon’s traffic. It was a courtesy to neighbors who were largely unaware of the event because the SSA chose not to notify them, as required by law, and placed its advertising only in select businesses east of California Avenue. Oh, the alderman did announce it in her newsletter the week before, but she apparently didn’t have time to tend to the legal details or common courtesy, either. She and the SSA never do. You’d hear them screaming if something like this were scheduled outside their own residences, though.

The Shree Ganesh Temple celebrated a Hindu holiday in the parking lot, complete with loudspeaers that blasted for five hours. It also shut down Devon so dancers could march from the temple to the parking lot.

Devon shut down on Sunday, September 23, to allow 150 Hindu celebrants to march to thr parking lot from the temple. The temple’s owners have admitted that the temple exists primarily to increase business for Devon’s Indian merchants. They have voiced no concerns over its impact on non-Hindu residents.

This was a bad idea right from the start. The SSA and the alderman are determined to turn the failed parking lot into a neighborhood entertainment center. In the past six weeks, it’s been home to an India Day celebration, a political protest, a Hindu holiday celebration, and now this movie night. The lot is zoned only for parking and lacks a license for religious or entertainment events, but the SSA and the alderman don’t care. The Silverstein-selected SSA members (technically appointed by the Mayor) ignore the laws because Silverstein  encourages it. It’s paid off for her. There’s no Asian candidate for alderman this time around. There were two in 2015, and they garnered one-third of the vote.

There is no evidence that any of these loudspeaker-fueled occasions have increased business, and Devon east of California is littered with vacant stores–just like Devon west of California. The lot between Campbell and Maplewood, site of a fire during Berny Stone’s last term, is still vacant nine years later, overrun with weeds, used as a garbage dump by passers-by, and cursed with a sagging fence. A good alderman would take the owner to court on a sell-or-build lawsuit, but not Silverstein. You’d think the SSA could ask the lot’s owner to open his lot for such events. It’s right in the heart of what the SSA publicizes as Little India, and would be perfect for movie events, since there’s no nearby housing. But if your intent is to drive longtime residents out of the area, you want to stage your parties in a parking lot alongside an alley in a display of arrogance and contempt that would not be tolerated north of Devon.

It’s so hard to protest without loudspeakers. Look at this monstrosity on wheels! Naturally, this group appeared during the dinner hour.

I’ve noted before that Silverstein’s annual ward movie night, held in the north part of the ward, takes place during the summer in Chippewa Park. Why not hold Devon Movie Night in Berny Stone Park? Or is that too far from the SSA members’ businesses?

Every parking-lot event produced by Silverstein and the SSA has failed. They make a lot of noise, but they don’t build good will or business. Remember the Devon Community Market? The Family Fun Fest? What were they thinking?

I’m not opposed to movie nights. But they belong in parks. In August.

 

 

Another Jackass Idea

The jackasses who run SSA #43 have come up with yet another crackpot idea to build business in Little India. They have invited shoppers on Devon to bring blankets and lawn chairs and enjoy an evening on the asphalt watching a movie at the Republic Bank parking lot. Yes, you heard that right.

The idea is so stupid it defies logical analysis. On a Thursday night, a school night, from 8 to 10 p.m., the SSA will be showing an animated film in the parking lot. Who would want to sit on a blanket on wet asphalt to watch a movie? What kind of parents think this is a good opportunity to entertain children who have to go to school in the morning? Who wants to carry enough chairs for an entire family?

The SSA, as usual, has not bothered to inform or involve neighbors living 10 feet away from what the SSA–with Ald. Silverstein’s full cooperation–has made its private entertainment venue. I learned about this event only because I saw the poster taped to one of the store windows on Devon. I’m sure the alderman will promote it in her newsletter today, mainly because she doesn’t care what an imposition it is on residents living directly next door. As long as it doesn’t disturb her, she’s fine with it.

It’s worth noting that when there’s a movie on the north end of the ward, where the alderman lives, it’s held in a park, not a parking lot. But that end of the ward votes for her. Our precinct never has.

If there are any plans for parking, crowd control, noise abatement, or clean up, the SSA has not shared them with the people living alongside this parking lot. Given the way other events have been handled, spilled popcorn, soda, candy, and other food debris will simply be left overnight. Residents will just have to cope with the scores of rats attracted by all the goodies.

Who will handle the drunks? Will there be yet another taxpayer-funded police detail assigned to cover this private event?

Has the SSA applied for a special events permit? If so, it has failed to comply with any of the requirements imposed on it by the city. Nearby residents are supposed to get a 30-day notice that such an event is scheduled so they can object if they choose to. The SSA is also supposed to furnish detailed plans for parking, crowd and noise control, and clean up. It never does, because it does not communicate with residents.

It’s the time of year when the 2019 contract for the SSA is being negotiated. I think keeping this independent taxing body in operation should be an issue in the aldermanic campaign. This SSA has demonstrated time and time again that it has no respect for community residents or for the laws governing community events.

The SSA lacks any sense of courtesy or responsibility toward residents. Its members are arrogant, selfish, and downright mean when it comes to what they want, and they have consistently ignored the rights of nearby residents on both sides of Devon.

Ald. Silverstein attends the SSA meetings; in fact, they are held in her office. She and the Rogers Park Business Alliance, the SSA administrator, are fully aware of and complicit in this arrogant behavior. But it is she who sets the tone, she who fails to ensure that the laws she is sworn to uphold are followed.

It’s another reason to vote her out of office.

We need an alderman who understands that building a business district doesn’t start with a jackass idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note how the monies are budgeted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

All fees are estimated.

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

The Silverstein way.

 

SSA #43: Taxation Without Representation

Raise your hand if you’ve heard of SSA #43. Maybe you’ve read about an upcoming SSA meeting in the alderman’s weekly newsletter? Maybe you’ve read about major decisions taken by its Board that determine not only Devon’s cleanliness, snow removal policies, noise level, and decorations, but also how much property owners within the SSA district will have to pony up in extra real estate taxes to pay for these services?  No?

You should know about it, because SSA #43 taxes property owners within its boundaries (Kedzie to Damen on Devon, Arthur to Granville on Western) to support its initiatives. It’s one of those anonymous, quasi-governmental bodies with taxing authority that has its hands in residents’ pockets and hides in plain sight.

[Scroll down until you get to the part about how much it costs each property in the district to pay for the SSA. Keep in mind that these are the 2013 figures.]

SSA #43 is the Special Services Area for Devon Avenue, created by the West Ridge Chamber of Commerce and the Devon merchants to boost business on Devon Avenue without having to actually address the basic problem, i.e., exclusionary retailing, or make any substantive changes that would require economic planning involving the entire West Ridge community. It’s worth noting that one of the objectives mentioned in the financial statements (Note 1) is to establish competitive commercial districts; how this can be accomplished when merchants refuse to serve most of the immediate market is not addressed.

The SSA is run by the Chamber of Commerce and the SSA Board to benefit businesses within its district, although some receive no help at all while others control the Board and the money and use it primarily to benefit merchants between Western and Washtenaw. You know—the merchants who don’t want local residents in their stores unless those residents are the right ethnicity. This used to be called discrimination, but it’s not politically correct to say that in relation to minorities. Let’s call it exclusionary retailing: by stocking merchandise that supports the culture of only one ethnic group in our diverse community, shoppers from other ethnic groups are not only excluded but also actively helped to self-select out of local stores. Because 80% of the neighborhood is not the target market, merchants must rely on shoppers from other areas and tourists to make money. And those shoppers now have better places to go.

The merchants may not want our business, but they do want our money.  What the SSA describes as “a small assessment” is largely unknown to the residents who pay it. As if that’s not bad enough, SSA #43 overlaps with a TIF district. When SSA and TIF areas overlap, an increase in taxes for one results in an increase for the other. You do remember reading that on your tax bill, or hearing about it from the alderman, right? If not, you might want to check out a 2012 report by the City’s Inspector General,

In theory, the SSA’s Board represents both business and property owners. In fact, it doesn’t. In addition to its tasks of removing snow (except on Tuesdays, when there’s no point since the stores aren’t open and who cares about pedestrians anyway?) and cleaning up the mountains of garbage left by shoppers, the SSA also helps plan and fund so-called “community” events, such as the upcoming FunFest and the Devon Community Market. These events always fail because (1) the larger community doesn’t shop on Devon and therefore doesn’t care about business-building efforts; (2) there’s no parking; and (3) the planning group lacks imagination except when it comes to reporting fantasy figures for attendance.

This year the SSA planned to spend tax dollars on street banners celebrating Indian and Pakistani Independence Days. No money was spent on banners to celebrate American Independence Day, which joins Presidents Day, Memorial Day, Easter, Purim, Labor Day, Halloween, Hanukkah, and Christmas as holidays no longer recognized or celebrated by store owners on Devon. The SSA does celebrate Hindu holidays and created an all-night Eid shopping event–wihout warning nearby residents, many kept awake by the cars, music, fireworks, screaming children, and boisterous adults celebrating the end of Ramadan. It took a 3:00 a.m. thunderstorm to get them to go home.

There was an attempt to renew the SSA for another 15 years–until 2028–but it failed to pass the City Council in May 2015. [Note that the link to the Council ordinance specifies that certain “private information has been redacted from public viewing.”] The tax increase requested by the SSA (from .40 to 1.5%) was in addition to all other property taxes levied, so I suspect the failure to pass was related to the whopping property tax increase about to be levied, but the SSA did not let the issue die.

On further checking, I found that the Council approved the money grab in December 2015 with the signing of agreements which are, not surprisingly, no longer available on the City’s Web site. Both the 2015 and 2016 agreements have vanished, although the Web site assures me that City staffers have been notified and will search for the missing documents. Imagine: public documents relating to a secretive property tax hike suddenly gone from public view. And I mean suddenly— they disappeared the day after I accessed them.

The SSA currently has three vacancies, according to the April 2016 minutes. While I strongly encourage community members to apply for appointment, be warned that the alderman makes the choices, though members are technically mayoral appointees. It’s a given that she–and they–won’t want anybody who speaks for residents or thinks independently.

The next meeting of SSA #43 is on Thursday, September 15, at 4:00 p.m. at the alderman’s office Meetings are open to the public, but don’t be surprised if you show up and the meeting is cut short, or everything under discussion is moved to executive session.

SSA #43 is yet another instance of the powers-that-be operating in secrecy. The 2013 initiative claimed public outreach, but did anyone from the community attend? Hard to tell, especially if the 2013 creation and 2015 attempt at renewal are any gudes. In 2013, only 100 copies were published of a “Special Pamphlet” describing the district and outlining its funding and its responsibilities. That isn’t enough copies to distribute to the businesses in the SSA district, let alone the residential property owners. In 2015, notice of the SSA’s request for renewal was published not in a local paper, where residents might actually see it, but in the Chicago Sun Times classifieds, where it would be easy to miss. Of course, if you don’t know there’s an SSA that’s taxing you, you wouldn’t be looking for any such announcement, would you? It wasn’t mentioned in the alderman’s newsletter, either.

In both cases, the SSA met the letter of the law—notice was given, but not its spirit—actually informing the public.

The SSA was helped in its quest for a tax hike by an expensive consulting firm, Place Consulting. Its Community Engagement page provides a blueprint for the kind of outreach this SSA needs to do if it really wants to fully engage residents in economic development. But I doubt if that’s the SSA’s goal. Levying taxes in secrecy and ignoring the community’s needs and desires suits them better.

Didn’t America’s founders fight a war against this?