Vision for Jeff Park could affect outcome of JPNA election
by BRIAN NADIG
The Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association for the first time is having a contested election for the presidency of the 15-year-old organization.
The two candidates are Bob Bank, who joined the association in 2001, and Ryan Richter, who joined in January of this year. Bank and Richter have been on opposite sides of social media debates on how to best revitalize the Jefferson Park business district.
Retiring association president Judy Skotzko said that there is “a divide” in the 192-member group between some of the newer and older members.
Skotzko said that some of the older members remember how the redevelopment of Jefferson Park was mismanaged in the 2000s, leaving the business district with several vacant lots. She said that those members tend to be more skeptical of city leaders and the area’s largest commercial property owner, the Mega Group, which owns several gravel parking lots and which is seeking to buy for $1 about 20,000 square feet of city-owned land at Lawrence and Laramie avenues for a proposed 39-unit apartment building.
Meanwhile, Skotzko said that some of the newer members do not have that feeling of “distrust” which residents developed for Mega and the city.
Some of those newer members have been critical of the association’s platform, which calls for no upzoning and the abolishment of the Jefferson Park Tax Increment District, which funds infrastructure improvements and which allows the city to condemn property in the business district for the purposes for facilitating private development. In 2006, the city condemned several properties for a proposed 132-unit condominium building that was never constructed.
Bank said that that his main goal as president would be to “maintain the character of the community” and that he does not buy the argument that higher density is the best way to fix the problems in the business district. He said that Edison Park has a successful business district without high density and that the existing zoning is not a barrier to progress.
“The zoning is generally very generous throughout the district. You can put up a four-story building almost anywhere,” said Bank, who has served as sergeant-at-arms, secretary and president of the association.
In addition, Bank said, the TIF district has been a failure because since it was implemented in 1998 the area has experienced an increase in vacant lots and storefronts and that those tax dollars would be better spent going to the schools.
Richter said that he “is a little more pragmatic” when it comes to redevelopment and does not believe in “absolutes” that could tie the city’s hand in how to best revitalize the area. He said that “95 percent of Jefferson Park always” will consist of single-family homes, two-flat and three-flats but that under certain circumstances increasing density in areas near the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Transit Center makes sense and will help attract more businesses to the area.
Richter said that in order to redevelop the vacant lots, the community has little choice but to work with Mega because the company appears unwilling to sell any of its properties. “The problem is we have a land owner that owns a lot of properties and that it is not healthy, but he is our neighbor,” said Richter, who works as a transportation planner.
Bank charged that Richter is running for president in an effort to help Alderman John Arena (45th) gain more control over the group, which has been at odds with Arena on several issues. “It’s like a watchdog group to me, looking over the politicians,” Bank said of the association.
Richter said that while he and Arena share some of the same views, he is running because of concerns about the future of the neighborhood. Richter said that the recent aldermanic election “drove a lot of people to the organization” because one of the most debated issues was the Jefferson Park business district but that as president, he would make sure the association remained a non-political organization.
Both Richter and Bank said that the association has been responsible for several successful neighborhood projects, including the start of farmers’ markets and an historical society and that they would make improvements in how the association promotes itself.
Also running in the election are Dennis Davis, Peter Insley, Liz Jurkacek, Marie MacDonald and Eva Skowronski for three board of director positions, and Ed Irsch is unopposed for treasurer.
The election will be held at the association’s meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 30, at the Congregational Church of Jefferson Park, 5320 W. Giddings St. Only those who have been a paid member of the association for at least three months are eligible to vote, and candidates will be allowed to make a brief statement before the vote.