Don’t Attend the “On Devon” Festival

I strongly urge community members not to attend the “On Devon Festival”  scheduled for Labor Day weekend. Its concept, planning, and development are an insult  to the community at large  and a slap in the face to residents living closest to Republic Bank, like me. How? Let’s see:

  • Is a “special event” in a parking lot really the best that West Ridge can do? This event belongs in a park, not a parking lot. Events staged in the north end of the ward always occur in parks. Even Silverstein’s backpack giveaway was in a park. Why do events staged in the south end of the ward always occur in the Republic Bank parking lot? Especially a so-called family festival? Is this really the best place to celebrate community? It’s an insult to the entire West Ridge community.
  • We are a neighborhood of beautiful parks, and Berny Stone Park is on Devon.  It’s underused, with plenty of room for all the events the SSA and Chamber promise. To the planners of this event, thought, kids from the south end of the ward deserve to run around on hot, hard asphalt instead of soft green grass. Nor do they see anything wrong with subjecting babies, young kids, and neighbors to concert-level music for hours on end.
  • Live music? Beer sales? Port-a-potties? On sidewalks and in alleys? Stone Park is too close to the 24th and 25th precincts, filled with Silverstein supporters in single-family homes who might object to all the noise, drinking, and filth. The parking lot is in the 19th Precinct, whose residents have never supported Silverstein.
  • Lots of “free” kids’ activities are planned to lure the parents to what is basically a retooled Devon Community Market. The Chamber promises lots of vendors selling goods residents have already declined to buy.
  • The Chamber will be selling beer. The musical entertainment is geared to attracting lots of young people. Nothing like having a bunch of rowdy young drunks right outside your windows. Especially when there are kids present. What guarantees are there that heavy drinkers won’t vomit all over lawns and parkways?  Who pays for clean-up on private property? Minutes from one of the SSA meetings suggested that one-third of the event would be paid for via beer sales. This has all the earmarks of an officially-sanctioned drunkfest. Do West Ridge residents really want to support a mini-Lollapalooza?
  • SSA minutes indicate that the cost of all the “free” entertainment will be shared between the SSA and the Chamber. The SSA gets its operating funds from a 1.5% extra tax (over and above property taxes) levied on all property owners living within the SSA boundaries (Kedzie east toDamen, Granville north to Arthur). This tax is passed on to renters of both businesses and apartments. The SSA committed to spending at least $15,000 on this event. Should taxpayer money be spent on bread and circuses when there are more than 40 vacant storefronts on Devon?
  • According to its Charter, the SSA’s mission is to promote existing businesses and attract new ones on Devon, a task at which it has failed spectacularly. Instead, the SSA spends its time creating dubious “business builders” like Devon Movie Night (attracting a crowd of fewer than 20 children and perhaps 4 adults), a talent show called “Devon’s Got Talent,” and this beer-fueled community market/festival. No wonder the Rogers Park Business Alliance was given oversight of the SSA once it proved itself incapable of managing its own affairs. The RPBA has not done much better, although it gets nearly a quarter ($99,000) of the monies raised by the SSA’s tax levy for management fees and staff salaries.
  • There will be trolley service from Western to the festival. You’d think the alderman, who’s so proud of her beautiful streetscape, would want visitors to travel the whole length of Devon, not just through Little India. But most of the vacant storefronts are west of California, and she’d prefer that no one see the desolation. Who’s paying for the trolleys? Look in the mirror.

The Chamber of Commerce, the alderman, and  the commissioners of Special Services Area #43 should be ashamed of the disregard and disrespect they have shown for the families living closest to the Bank. None of the parties involved in this so-called “community” festival would dare to treat residents of single-family homes in such a manner. But under this alderman, shitting on residents in the south end of the ward has become acceptable–the south end, where shootings are never acknowledged and the residents, primarily immigrants, tend to come from governments run by arrogant tyrants who do not see them as fully human. No wonder they don’t dare object. No wonder they’re right at home in the 50th.

This event has been planned since late last year. At no time was the community involved in the planning. Rather than discuss this festival with the residents most affected, plans proceeded under a veil of secrecy, the alderman’s preferred mode  of operation.  And Eden Seferovic, the Chamber’s executive director, chose to announce the event at a meeting of the West Ridge Community Organization last June.  The first that most nearby residents knew about the fest was when the alderman announced it  in her newsletter at the end of July. This is a shabby way to treat Ward residents. It’s to be expected from the alderman, the Chamber, and the SSA, none of whom have ever exhibited the slightest decency toward residents who live around the parking lot.

The bank’s plans to profit from the streetscape by building a parking lot did not work out. The parking lot has failed because the shoppers for whom it was created refuse to pay for parking and prefer instead to break the gates rather than pay. I have been out with my dogs and witnessed the various ways that shoppers evade payment for parking– removing the exit gate, moving or removing the sensors that allow the exit gate to open and close, rolling their vehicles back and forth until the exit gate lifts and then not pulling out until the gate freezes in the up position, etc.

Republic Bank’s failure to properly design, build, and maintain its parking lot does not give the Bank, the Chamber, the SSA, or the alderman the right to turn the lot into a public place of amusement. That requires a license, which is impossible to get because of the housing just across the alley. So the Bank, the Chamber, the SSA, and the alderman simply ignore the legal requirement. It should be noted that the alderman has served for years on the City Council’s Committee on Cultural Affairs and Special Events, the committee that writes the rules for events like this.

But nearby residents are expected to sacrifice the last family-oriented holiday of summer to the alderman’s so-called community festival. Our backyard BBQs and family get-togethers will be lost in a tsunami of noise from concert level music. In addition, Washtenaw Avenue is to be closed from Devon to the east-west alley, a fact unknown until a letter from the Chamber about the festival was placed on building doorknobs yesterday. With characteristic sloppiness, the letter misstates the block to be closed as the 6200 block of Washtenaw. It is actually the 6400 block. The Chamber is listed as the event’s sponsor in an attempt to hide the SSA’s involvement. Those tax monies are a problem.

Community members who attend the On Devon Festival will be acquiescing in the abuse of other community residents. Ask yourself: would you want this across the alley  from your home? Would you want others to support it if it were?

I should add that the event is from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. on Sunday night and 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Monday night. Live music. Drunks. Screaming children. If past events are any guide, set-up will begin at 6 a.m. on Sunday morning. Takedown will continue until near midnight on Monday. Kids in the surrounding buildings will go to their first day of school sleep-deprived. But hey! These are the poor kids in the neighborhood, so who cares? Not the Bank, not the alderman, not the SSA, not the Chamber.

Everyone connected with this event should hang his or her head in shame. Shame on Dewbra Silverstein, Robert Taylor, the manager of Republic Bank and president of the Chamber of Commerce, Eden Seferovic, the Chamber’s executive director, and the commissioners of SSA 43: Irshad Khan (Chair), Pete Valavanis (Vice Chair), Sanhita Agnihotri (Treasurer), Maura Nemes (Secretary), Jayesh Shewakramani, Payam Bereliani, and Rebeca Vasquez.

Let’s not forget to heap shame on members of the Rogers Park Business Alliance who helped organize this event: Sandi Price, executive director, Gina Caruso, and Tony Pelikan. Then there’s Bonnie Towse, business consultant for the Chamber. She was invited to all the planning meetings, although members of the nearby community were not. A consultant was needed to deliver another Devon Community Market? What didn’t the powers-that-be get about the failures of the previous three?

Please support your fellow community members. We are people, too, even if the alderman, the Chamber, the SSA, and their enablers don’t believe it. We deserve respect and courtesy, even from Silverstein and her minions.

Don’t attend the On Devon  Festival!

Alderman, SSA, Chamber Do Wrong by Residents

I am thrilled that Mayor Lightfoot has begun curbing the excesses of aldermanic privilege. Unfortunately, word that aldermen are no longer absolute bosses in their wards has not yet reached the 50th Ward. Once again Silverstein, her handpicked SSA, the Chamber of Commerce, Republic Bank of Chicago, and the Rogers Park Business Alliance (RPBA) have arranged two more noisy events in the Bank’s failed parking lot.

The events are a two-day live-music fest and a movie night. Neither event has involved resident input. Indeed, residents have been deliberately kept out of the planning process. The alderman and SSA brook no interference with their plans, including legal restrictions. The alderman and her minions are determined to make the failed parking lot into a public place of amusement, even though it lacks both zoning and licensing for such activities. I am tired of fighting about this, have consulted a lawyer, and will be filing a lawsuit. There is no other way to put an end to this.

I have in the past used FOIA to try to obtain information on the permits for these events from the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. My requests always generate the same response: there are no records. In other words, Silverstein, the SSA, and the Chamber plan and execute these events while bypassing City law. No approval is needed except Silverstein’s. This has always been wrong, and everybody involved knew  it, but they went on with their activities knowing they could not be held accountable. Now, with the Lightfoot administration, they can. And I intend to see to it that they are. Festivals like this can be a good thing for the community, but not when they are planned in secrecy and held in venues not designed to accommodate them. Both events belong in a park, not a parking lot.

Republic Bank’s parking lot was built in 2012 and failed immediately because the shoppers for whom it was designed refused to pay for parking and engaged in behaviors ranging from outright vandalism (removing gates) to stealing parking services, evading payment by moving gate sensors and manipulating gate positions. The parking lot has never made a profit.

The lot is directly across the alley from multifamily housing–just ten feet–and is zoned B-1-2. The Bank lacks a PPA license and cannot get one because the distance from housing falls far short of the 125 feet required by ordinance. Such legal niceties don’t prevent the SSA from using aldermanic privilege to stage various entertainment programs and religious observances in the parking lot, all of which involve live or recorded music played at concert level (120 decibels and above). The police are unable to stop such activities because the alderman has approved them. Legal restrictions on the uses of this parking lot have been swept aside by aldermanic clout.

I find this especially egregious because Silverstein:

  •  was and remains a member of the City Council’s Committee on Cultural Affairs & Special Events, which writes the rules for events of this type–rules that do not apply to events staged with her approval in this parking lot
  • called for extra police to control her drunken neighbors during Purim but sees no problem with inviting several hundred strangers to a beer-fueled music fest ten feet from my home
  • lacks any sense of decency and consideration when it comes to residents around the parking lot, treating us shabbily, something she would not do to residents in single-family housing or the pricey condos where she lives.

Among the public events Silverstein and her handpicked SSA found suitable for this parking lot are:

  • a failed community market (2013-15) that was the lowest-ranked market in the City in terms of attendance and revenue; many vendors refused to participate more than once, and some left before the day ended because of the dearth of customers; live musical performances were part of every weekly event (read my blog post here)
  • musical concerts celebrating India Day, which served food and left a mess, thus attracting rats; stages were placed at the far north end of the lot, closest to housing (read blog post here)
  • Hindu religious observances featuring loudspeakers and heavy incense
  • a failed movie night last October that attracted only two dozen people, mostly children, who were provided popcorn but no water and no access to bathroom facilities (see blog post here).

Hindu religious observance including music and dance, Fall 2018. Note the number, size, and placement of loudspeakers. Music could be heard for blocks.

Imagine such activities suddenly materializing outside your home. I spoke to the alderman during the first community market in 2013, when my TV was drowned out by the live “music.” Hostile to any criticism, she said she would tolerate such noise “for the good off the neighborhood” and I should do the same. When I suggested moving the market outside her home, she walked away.

Food trash left inside parking lot along Devon Avenue fence after India Day concert.

The India Day concerts include free food and water. Organizers left messes like this (see left) after every concert. Water bottles were tossed all over the alley, and empty boxes were left inside and outside the parking lot. Live music from tinny loudspeakers was blasted for several hours. It was impossible for nearby residents to shut out the noise.

Audience at Devon Movie Night, Republic Bank Parking Lot, October 2018.

Last Fall’s movie night attracted fewer than two dozen viewers. Moviegoers sat on the parking lot’s asphalt; one woman brought her own chair. This isn’t the case when movies are shown in the north end of the ward, where the alderman lives. Those movies are shown in Chippewa Park, a comfortable distance from housing and viewers sit on soft grass. Why aren’t residents from the south end of the ward granted such amenities?

Note how close the movie screen is to homes–just an alley’s width away. The movie has to be loud to be heard over the din of traffic on Devon Avenue. Do you believe the alderman would permit this outside her home?

Look where the screen was placed! What kind of people think this is the proper way to treat residents? RPBA  is paid nearly a quarter of the SSA’s budget (roughly $100,000) for planning expertise. Have they never heard of zoning? Licensing? Try imposing noise like this outside the merchants’ stores and see how long it takes before police are called and offenders removed. (See City Ordinance O2018-6909 passed 9/18).

Nearby residents never receive proper notice of these events but learn of them only when the blasting starts. This past weekend, this ad was hung on Republic Bank’s Devon Avenue fence. It is the only notice nearby residents have received about  the next movie night, scheduled for Sunday, June 23.

The SSA and Chamber announced at last week’s WRCO meeting that they are sponsoring a two-day live-music festival in the parking lot over the Labor Day week-end. The organizers are seeking a liquor license for the festival, which will also include “a tent city of shopping” and will close Washtenaw Avenue up to the east-west alley. No word on where the Port-a-Potties will be located.  The SSA has been planning this event for months, but has not yet advised nearby property owners or residents. It was also announced last week that marketing materials have been finalized and are ready for distribution. At no time has the community been invited to be part of the process. (See the SSA’s 2019 Minutes from January, February, March, and April. May’s minutes have not been posted at this writing.) Note that discussions of this event are classified in the Minutes as “Public Input.” This is not to be misconstrued as input from nearby residents, who have been excluded from the process. Note also that “beer sales” have been identified as one of the main funding sources. Gee, who can their target audience be? Is West Ridge ready to welcome hundreds of rowdy drunks cheering their favorite bands? Would any or the organizers do this where they live?

At no time have the residents living directly alongside the parking lot been given the legally-mandated notices of any of these events. These notices require a 30-day period during which residents may object to such activities and also require notice of street closings. All of the events staged in the parking lot are broadcast on loudspeakers at concert levels (120 decibels or higher). City law prohibits such levels in residential areas. In 2018 another law was passed regulating musical concert noise because of noise complaints from condo owners in high rises along Sheridan Road. I believe my neighbors and I are entitled to the same consideration.

Labor Day is the last holiday of summer, a time when families enjoy backyard barbeques and back-to-school parties, all of which will be impacted by the noise, crowds, and parking issues arising from the planned music festival. Festival-goers seeking parking will converge on residential streets, thus depriving residents’ friends and relatives of parking. Who gave the alderman, SSA, and Chamber the right to invite hundreds of people to drink outside our homes? There is an ongoing backlash against this kind of event wherever it is held. Such fests have been moved because of noise complaints (Riot Fest);  and there is a new controversy over the move of the Mamby Music Fest to Montrose Beach because of the impact of the noise on birds in the nearby Montrose Bird Sanctuary. I can assure you that the birds can expect to receive more consideration than the neighbors on Washtenaw and Fairfield Avenues. The alderman, the SSA, the Chamber, and the Bank have always treated us like shit on their shoes.

There are alternative sites for this event, which properly belongs in one of our many neighborhood parks. Why not Warren Park, where fest goers can visit the Pakistani stores east of Western as well as the many restaurants on Western itself? Why not Stone Park, gateway to Devon, where the fest might attract visitors from Skokie and Lincolnwood? Holding the fest in Stone Park would give visitors the opportunity to stroll the length of Devon and see for themselves all the international shopping the alderman claims is here. It might also provide some much-needed business for the few merchants west of California. There are two large adjacent parking lots on Devon & Leavitt, near the home of the Chamber’s president. Why not stage the Fest there? Or will his neighbors object to noise and crowds and drinking and parking issues? As to the movie, why not use the vacant space on the second floor of Republic Bank? That way, the kids would at least have toilet access. Maybe there will be a Porta-a-Potty in the pwrking lot. Classy.

The organizers are not interested in moving either event and are moving ahead with distributing their marketing materials. Once word gets out about the festival, it will be all but impossible to stop, another dirty trick played on unsuspecting residents by the alderman and her pals.

It isn’t surprising that the alderman and officials from the SSA, the Chamber, the Bank, and the merchants they represent feel entitled to treat the lot’s  closest neighbors with such appalling disregard and disrespect. They insist that these events are an attempt to “give back” to the community. It’s a lie. They are trying to improve their businesses while (a) keeping the problems generated by these “give-backs” away from their businesses; and (b) not making any of the retailing changes residents want. Devon is littered with empty storefronts, and business is down across the board. The recent “International Marketplace” promotional campaign failed. Shoppers know that a cucumber is a cucumber, and buying it from a Syrian, Egyptian, or Iraqi merchant doesn’t make the experience international. The new campaign, “On Devon,” promises experiences that do not yet exist. This music fest will not provide them. Neither will another movie night. The merchants represented by a tone-deaf SSA and alderman refuse to interact with or show consideration for neighborhood residents, and such communication is the only way to improve the business climate.

The lack of simple decency toward residents is astounding. The members of the SSA who conceive of these events choose to disregard the rights of those of us who live in the vicinity. The area around Devon is home mainly to an immigrant community, many of whom are in the country illegally (the Census Bureau indicates that 12-15% of the residents of the 50th Ward are undocumented). The alderman and the SSA know that these residents will not complain no matter how badly they are treated.  The few American-born residents, like me, are ignored by the powers that be, who, protected by the alderman, are used to running roughshod over residents. None of the guilty parties–Silverstein, the SSA, the Chamber, the RPBA–would dare to behave this way toward residents in the more affluent end of the ward. Don’t expect to see this behavior west of California, or anywhere on Western. The merchants have become as arrogant and unaccountable as the alderman.

I was recently told by one of the businessmen I respect that there should be harmony between the merchants and the residents. I agree. But after six years of this shit, I just don’t feel the love.

Maybe a judge can help.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Candidate Forum Scheduled

The second forum for 50th Ward aldermanic candidates is scheduled for Sunday, February 10, at 2 p.m. at the Bernard Horwich Center, 3003 West Touhy Avenue.

The forum is jointly sponsored by the West Ridge Chamber of Commerce, the Jewish Neighborhood Development Council, and the League of Women Voters.

Follies Truth Squad: Silverstein Campaign Mailer, Part II

Any alderman who claims tree trimming as a major accomplishment should not be running for reelection.

The overall impression conveyed by the claims listed in Ald. Silverstein’s newsletter/campaign mailer is that she invests most of her time in relatively trivial pursuits rather than doing the hard work of creating an economic development plan, leading the way on community empowerment, and providing the leadership the ward so desperately needs. Among her many failures on the major issues:

  • Silverstein has failed to deliver the “spirited economic development plan” for California, Devon, Touhy, and Western Avenues that she promised in 2010. She’s had eight years to do so.
  • Silverstein has stubbornly refused to bring participatory budgeting to the 50th Ward, despite widespread neighborhood support, and actively tried to prevent a nonbinding referendum from making the ballot, hiring her elections attorney to challenge the wording of the PB petition and fight the issue before the Chicago Board of Elections. Instead of granting the community a voice in how the $1.3M menu money is used, she spends it all on her major obsession–potholes
  • Silverstein never engaged the community in what she now claims was one of her major priorities–a new Northtown Library. She should have led the community in its attempts to replace the crumbling structure on California with a new building, but she did nothing except discourage neighborhood residents who approached her about doing so. The LEARN Coalition was organized as a direct response to her lack of interest and succeeded in bringing the neighborhood’s needs to the attention of the Chicago Public Library Board and the Mayor’s Office. Silverstein was not the driving force behind the new library, despite her claims otherwise. She refuses to acknowledge that LEARN led the way.
  • Silverstein has failed to attract significant numbers of new businesses to the ward. She has failed to create the business districts that would support the idea of West Ridge being “The International Marketplace,” as its marketing campaign claims. The new campaign, “On Devon,” is built on the fantasy that there are a wide variety of shops selling a vast array of unique goods . In fact, most stores on Devon are small grocers, beauty shops, and cell phone stores. Touhy Avenue is commercially barren, with blocks of vacancies. Western has many vacancies as well.

Yet Silverstein brags about “improving our local businesses” by hanging banners and attending meetings of the Chamber of Commerce and the SSA.  She doesn’t just meet “regularly” with the SSA, she controls it. The poor decisions it makes are made in her office, with Silverstein  in attendance. She chooses the commissioners, who are technically appointed by the Mayor. The hodgepodge of community programs it offers (Movie in the Parking Lot, Devon’s Got Talent) are poorly conceived and executed.

I’ve discussed the new library extensively in various posts. One  important point needs to be reiterated:

  • Silverstein appointed a secret advisory committee to help her make decisions on the library’s final design. Its members were appointed nearly two years ago, but to this day Silverstein refuses to disclose who they are. They were sworn to secrecy by her and forbidden to discuss their deliberations or reveal the names of fellow committee members to anyone. This is public business. Why the need for secrecy?

The Devon Avenue streetscape, her other major accomplishment, is a disaster.

  • The street is now so narrow that it slows traffic and creates constant traffic jams
  • The lack of police foot patrols from Talman to Western–the main shopping area on Devon–has left drivers feeling free to park or stand in bus lanes, forcing passengers to board and exit the bus in the street, while the bus blocks traffic  Many vehicles park or stand in crosswalks while waiting for shoppers inside the grocery stores
  • Many drivers park parallel to the curb bump-outs, and it is impossible for two lanes of traffic to pass each other.
  • Devon is an environmental disaster. The BGA recently released a report on the most polluted areas of Chicago. Because the business model on Devon requires that shoppers be recruited from outside the neighborhood, vehicular pollution is high. You’d think the alderman who claims educating the neighborhood’s children as yet another of her “priorities” would show some concern for the toddlers in daycare centers and the kids in our local schools. Ha! Silverstein’s busy looking for potholes and counting sawed-off tree limbs
  • The sidewalks are simply filthy. Many are stained by pan, a mixture of beetle juice, herbs, and often tobacco that is chewed and spit all over the place. The stains on the new sidewalks are permanent, and the seating areas disgusting. I call them sit-and-spit areas. Pan is banned in India and Canada, among other nations, because its use is unsanitary and indelible. It’s allowed on Devon, and sold by a significant number of stores. The alderman doesn’t care.
  • The streetscape design did not include trash cans in the seating areas, so garbage is dumped in planters and on / under seating

Notice that Silverstein takes credit for attending parades, “Iftar dinners,” and claims she participated in soccer games and the World Cup Final. That’s a sight I’d like to see. But however clumsy the wording, labeling these activities as “celebrat[ing] all our cultures” is ridiculous. I’ve always said she excels at the ceremonial aspects of her job–nobody is more willing to pose for pictures–but this is symbolism, not leadership.

Is the Movie in the Park really an example of Silverstein working with the community? Did Silverstein really help produce the Indian Boundary Park Harvest Fest? Or did she simply show up for yet another photo-opp?

It’s worth noting that the alderman with more than $190,000 in her war chest could not find a few hundred dollars to buy turkeys for the poor at Thanksgiving. In eight years in office, Silverstein has never organized a food drive or a coat drive for the less fortunate. Yes, her office collects items for Toys for Tots, veterans, and others, but I’ve never felt that she has any compassion for people less well-off than she is. I reviewed her campaign fundraising expense account, and find she consistently makes only two charitable donations: $200 per month to CJE for transportation for the elderly, and $50 per year for the North Boundary Homeowners League.

Four more years?? With this sorry record??

I think not.

Tomorrow: Part III will focus on Silverstein’s claims regarding public safety

 

It’s Not “Just a Parking Lot” Anymore

Most of us treasure these last days of summer, as the days get shorter and the breezes warmer and the backyard tomatoes are ripe for picking. There’s nothing like sitting on the porch or in the yard or even in one’s own kitchen, enjoying the evening breezes, Sinatra singing, and a fresh tomato tart.

That is, unless you live around the Republic Bank parking lot, which this week will be the site of both a Wednesday movie night and a Saturday evening India Day program that includes a concert. The Minutes of the SSA meeting reveal that initial plans for tonight called for a restaurant crawl, movie night, and ribbon cutting starring the Mayor. He may show up. He’s running for reelection and what better way to show the Indian community he loves them? It will boost Silverstein’s reelection campaign as well–another photo for the weekly family album, er, constituent newsletter.

June 18 minutes

The India Day event, including the parade and the party-in-a-parking lot , is expected to cost $100,000, most of it privately funded. The original proposal included a talent show, a fashion show, and a concert. I wonder how much of that is being spent for the privilege of eating cake alongside an alley. You’d think the organizers would want to do better by their guests.

May 30 minutes.                                                          April 16 Minutes

The SSA is also planning a back to school event for next August in the same parking lot. How this will drive business to Devon is a mystery. No stores on the street sell school supplies or children’s shoes or clothing. The Indian businesses long ago made it clear they don’t want local residents in their stores, and I doubt if many tourists shop here for pencils and paper.

Continue reading

Economic Development Community Meeting at Northtown Library

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

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

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

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

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.

 

FunFest FlimFlam

FunFest was a wild success for children but a total bust as a business booster for Devon businesses. It showcases once again the absence of leadership in the West Ridge Chamber of Commerce as well as its desperation. It plans events like this in an effort to make itself a presence in the community while failing completely in its mission of business development. The Chamber’s inability to secure participation from any storekeepers on Devon turned the heavily-publicized event into a children’s party.

FunFest organizers publicized the event as having “two miles of sidewalk sales” plus free children’s activities and live music for adults. The press release further invited fest-goers to visit our “300 restaurants and 25 bakeries” as an added inducement. How pathetic: we lack middle-class shopping so we invite folks to visit our bakeries. Remember—this is the Chamber of Commerce speaking.  Such wildly preposterous claims are just part of the Chamber’s plague of image and effectiveness problems. [Familiar with the Chamber’s exaggerations, I checked its figures, which, predictably, were three times higher than the actual numbers.] 

The fest was attended by a couple hundred children, who had a great time with games, face painting, and other activities. The music was way too loud, as usual, and played at a level guaranteed to damage the hearing of kids who stayed too long or got too close. But the fest was held in the poor part of the ward, and the Chamber–to the extent it considered the effect of the decibel level on children at all, which is doubtful–knows that poor people, in this case almost all immigrants from countries with worse educational systems than our own, don’t know about these things. Then, too, the elevated speakers were directed at housing, not at participants, and nobody’s thinking about the kids’ hearing at this kind of event.  What’s a little hearing loss if it means a new account for the bank? Priorities, please.

As far as boosting business, the Chamber failed utterly. No stores participated in the sidewalk sales event. Not one. I traveled both sides of Devon for over an hour and found empty sidewalks. This was to be expected, since the Chamber’s repeated attempts to get merchants to participate in the Devon Community Market also went nowhere. Merchants tell me that there’s nothing the Chamber can do for them. They’re right. It’s completely irrelevant, its activities, such as they are, nothing more than blundering attempts to get noticed. The Chamber supposedly exists as business development experts, not as party planners. You’d never know it.

Successful chambers of commerce, such as those in neighboring wards, work with development-minded aldermen to support the community through business recruitment and development. By encouraging economic progress that creates jobs for residents and strengthens residents’ ties to local commerce, chambers of commerce help build the loyalty that turns neighbors into repeat customers who keep businesses profitable. So there’s already one problem: our alderman has zero interest in business development, thus our rudderless Chamber lacks vision or direction. Strike one.

Call the Chamber and ask how many businesses there are in the ward. I’ll save you the trouble: They don’t know. Oh, they can tell you how many business licenses there are—that’s an easy look-up–but that’s not the same thing.  Ask them what kinds of businesses have set up shop here. They don’t know that, either. How many of a given type of store are here? Duh.  Is there a West Ridge business directory? Yes—but only of the approximately 200 businesses that belong to the Chamber. Two hundred—in a ward with over 1,500 businesses.  Does the Chamber have an active business recruitment program?  How does the Chamber sell the neighborhood to prospective businesses? What is the Chamber doing to alleviate the parking problem?  Would the Chamber’s time be better directed to attracting and retaining commerce than hiring face-painters? Strike two.

As regular readers know, the parking lot at Republic Bank lacks both PPA and PVA licenses. Both live and canned music were blasted at yesterday’s event in violation of City law. I asked Barbara Singal, the Chamber’s Executive Director, if she had a permit for the music She showed me two sheets of paper, one clearly labeled “Application for Permit” and the other purportedly a letter from the alderman in support of the event. Singal claimed “the commissioner” had signed the permit. When I attempted t get out my glasses to read the documents myself, she took them out of my hands and replaced them in her tote bag. I suspect they’re bogus but asked her to email the documents to me; we’ll see if she does.

In the meantime, tell me how you’d feel if this were blasted in your direction for several hours on an otherwise lovely late summer afternoon.

Where Singal and Robert Taylor, the bank’s manager and this year’s Chamber president, live, this kind of children’s event is held in the local park so it won’t disturb residents enjoying their yards on one of the last summer Sundays. Aren’t my neighbors and I entitled to the same consideration? Do you think Silverstein would write a letter in support of such an event where she lives? When children behave this way, we call it bullying and tell them why it’s wrong. When aldermen and those who derive their power from aldermen do it, it’s still bullying and it’s still wrong. They must be held accountable for it. Strike three.

Silverstein is a city official sworn to uphold the law. If a permit was obtained, strings were pulled to get it. It’s also possible that Singal and Taylor were bluffing; this may be why the papers were snatched away before I could read them. The blasting yesterday—the 27th musical performance in the lot—is just the latest in a pattern of abusive behavior for which the bank, the Chamber, Singal, Taylor, and the alderman must be held accountable.

It appears that it will take legal action to get the parties involved to behave lawfully. Abuse should never be tolerated, especially when it comes from people with access to political power that they think confers immunity from responsibility for their actions

Fore more information on loud music and hearing damage in children, click here.

 

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?