45th Ward debate attracts hundreds to Copernicus Center
by BRIAN NADIG
Aldermanic candidates in the 45th Ward discussed a proposed athletics field at Schurz High School, a planned liquor store in Gladstone Park and a proposed 48-unit apartment complex in Jefferson Park at a debate on Jan. 21.
Challenging Alderman John Arena are Chicago police lieutenant John Garrido, former Beaubien School Local School Council member Michelle Baert and attorney Michael Diaz.
About 600 people attended the debate, which was held at the Copernicus Center 5216 W. Lawrence Ave. The Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association and Nadig Newspapers sponsored the debate.
The challengers said that they oppose a proposal to close a short stretch of Waveland Avenue east of Milwaukee Avenue to allow the installation of an artificial playing surface as part of a project to expand the athletics field at Schurz. Waveland is one of the main access points to the Old Irving Park neighborhood.
Garrido and Baert said that the reaction they have received from residents is against the proposal and that other improvements could be made without closing Waveland. "I don’t think it has to be all or nothing," Garrido said.
Arena said that he has established a steering committee to seek the opinions of residents on the project and that it is important for him to honor the process for evaluating projects which he has established as alderman before deciding which to accept or reject.
"Opportunity comes to an alderman’s office, and what I’m hearing is, don’t bother," Arena said of his challengers’ remarks. He said that developers will not want to invest in the ward if he does not follow a process which allows all residents to offer their opinions on a project and that for the 20 years before he was elected alderman in 2011 discussions of "where we ought to be going" were not held.
Baert charged that residents are often "insulted" by the community meetings that Arena holds. "When they get there, it seems like it is a done deal," she said.
Residents were upset that the agenda for a community meeting which Arena held on the Schurz project did not allow them to answer questions, Baert said. While Baert was finishing her remarks, Arena responded that it was a 4-hour meeting.
"It is one of the many projects that seem to be coming up, project after project, that the community does not want, but they don’t find out about it until it is half-way there or almost done," Garrido said of the Schurz proposal.
Diaz said that "you just don’t let an opportunity die" and that "any opportunity that avails itself belongs to the community, not the alderman." He said that while he opposes the Schurz proposal, that could change based on the opinions expressed by residents.
All three challengers said that they oppose a plan to open a liquor store at 5636 N. Milwaukee Ave. Arena supports the opening of the store.
"This is not a standard liquor store," Arena said. "The ones I have a problem with, LIS Liquors, where I have over-serving and late-night serving, that’s not the problem. The problem is getting a good business in a long-dormant property. That’s what we’re doing here."
There was disagreement about whether residents supported the project at a meeting that was held by Arena and that was attended by about six residents. Arena said that at the meeting "two said they don’t want it, four said they were fine with it."
Garrido said that it was his understanding that "two left early and the rest of them did not want it." He cited a newspaper article in which an Arena aide said that the residents at the meeting supported the project, but the aide later said that his statement had been made in error due to a miscommunication with one of his staff members.
Garrido said that many residents were not aware of the meeting on the liquor store and that Arena’s decision to support the store did not reflect the wishes of residents. "Once again it is the community second," Garrido said.
Arena said that he requires the applicants for all projects to send notice of the proposal to property owners within 500 to 1,000 feet of the site, which at least is double the legally required distance. He said that his office sends out e-mails about his community meetings and that he works with the local media to notify residents.
"If it is my community, and only six people show up, I’m going to think I’m not doing a good enough job getting the word out, and let’s do it again," Diaz said.
Baert said that there have been too many proposals for liquor stores and medical marijuana dispensaries north of Montrose Avenue in the ward. "I’m not sure how that is going to help us with economic development for our family-friendly community," she said.
Baert said that decisions on development proposals would be made through a vote by residents on each project after they had a chance to meet with the developers. "Taking a vote and representing the community on what they would like, and liquor stores is not one of those things," she said.
The challengers also expressed opposition to a proposed development that would have four floors of apartments above a parking level that would be partially below ground. The complex would be built on a vacant parcel at Long Avenue and Argyle Street, which is zoned for single-family homes and two-flats and which is across the street from the Jefferson Park Metra station.
Arena has asked the developer for the project to consider revisions based on the concerns expressed by residents about the height and density of the development. Residents living near the site have obtained about 1,600 signatures on a petition against the proposal.
The project is one of several development proposals which Arena has discussed privately with an advisory board with members that have included architects, urban planners and a representative of the neighborhood association. Arena has said that after discussing a project with the advisory board he hold a meeting open to the public before he makes a decision on a zoning proposal.
"The problem we have right now is there is no transparency," Garrido said. "We have secret zoning meetings." He said that residents often do not find out about a project until it is either leaked to the media or "too far down the road" for them to have a voice.
Garrido said that if he were alderman the plans for the Long-Argyle proposal would have been posted on his Web site on the day he received them. He said that he has signed a pledge that calls for "no upzoning" of the property
"It’s really simple for me," Diaz said. "If residents who are impacted by the development don’t want it, it doesn’t get done."
Diaz said that developers take risks when they purchase land for a project and that while they have certain property rights, a zoning change is not a guarantee. "You know what you are getting when you buy a parcel," he said. "If it is single-family, you knew that buying it."
Baert said that she would ask residents who live within a 3-block radius of the site to vote on the project and that her decision would be based on the outcome of the vote.
"It does not go along with what the neighborhood is about, which is single-family homes," Baert said of the proposal. She said that the density of the project would affect parking and schools in the neighborhood.
Arena said that since his first day in office he has had detailed guidelines for the ward and the decision-making process. "The process sets the stage for everybody to know the rules of the game," he said.
Any developer is expected to address the concerns of residents, Arena said. "If not, the plan is rejected, and we move on," he said.
Arena said that he has used the process for projects ranging from a 70,000-square-foot printing plant at 5450 N. Northwest Hwy. to the redevelopment of a single storefront.
Also at the debate, Arena and Diaz said that they support the opening of a medical marijuana dispensary in the ward, while Baert and Garrido said that they do not.
All of four of the candidates said that their community zoning meetings, including those of an advisory board, would be open to the public, and all of them said that they would be willing to post a list of their campaign donors on their Web site.
Arena also said that he would support an elected school board, while Baert said that she opposes it. Garrido said that he would support a school board that was half elected and half appointed, and Diaz said that the issue needs more study.
The debate was moderated by Ben Joravsky of the Chicago Reader. Additional 45th Ward debates are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 3, at Irving Park Baptist Church, 4401 W. Irving Park Road, and at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 5, at Hitch School, 5625 N. McVicker Ave.