Groups react to teleconference
by KEVIN GROSS
Community groups and some residents expressed mixed opinions about Alderman John Arena’s (45th) decision to hold a teleconference instead of a community meeting on Aug. 14 regarding the controversial 5150 N. Northwest Hwy. housing development.
"I think organizationally, we were excited about the teleconference format because it allows more people to participate and allows for more opinions, and allows (participation of) people who may not necessarily be able to travel to a public meeting or make their voices heard in a loud crowd," Neighbors for Affordable Housing member Sara Gronkiewicz-Doran said.
Jefferson Park Forward president Ryan Richter said, "Especially for a development like this, purporting to support people with disabilities or lower income, it meets the intended audience, in that it enables people that physically can’t attend to participate."
Members of some opposition groups criticized Arena’s decision to hold the meeting as a teleconference.
"There are 33,823 registered speakers in the ward, yet only 24 callers were allowed to speak, of which only nine were declared residents. That is less than 0.0003 percent of ward voters that had an opportunity to speak up," Northwest Side Unite said in an e-mail. "The other 420 callers were left on hold for the entire call and were disconnected without ever being heard. Community concerns have yet to be addressed."
"For him to hold a teleconference instead of a community meeting, I take that as a slap in the face to the constituents," Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association president Colleen Murphy said. "By limiting discussion it makes it seem like the community is more apathetic about the project than they really are."
Murphy referred to a community hearing held in February of 2017 at Branch Community Church, 6125 W. Foster Ave., as upholding her belief that Arena may purposely limit discussion. The venue was filled to capacity and "hundreds" of people, including many development opponents, were reportedly not allowed in, she said.
"JPNA asked to have this meeting at the Copernicus Center because the original location was too small – and we were right – but he said we couldn’t have a conversation here," she said.
During Tuesday’s teleconference about 20 people attended a protest outside of Arena’s ward office organized by area resident Bob Bank, who is also running for 45th Ward alderman. Some of them alleged that the hearing was, in a sense, "rigged."
One resident said that some people might have been apprehensive about calling, "considering he (Arena) filed complaints against all those city workers."
Gronkiewicz-Doran, a project supporter, said that she did not receive special treatment during the teleconference.
"I asked my question at the beginning, and I didn’t get called in on the teleconference" she said. "My question was specifically about why there’s a reduction of 3 bedroom units, when neighbors want as much affordable housing in the neighborhood."
Murphy said that signatures from a past petition drive indicated that 80 to 90 percent of households within 1,000 feet of the development were against the project.
By contrast Gronkiewicz-Doran said, "I think this event really showed us the same thing talking for 18 months to our neighbors showed: People are exited about the project, and the neighborhood needs affordable housing. We could hear that so many people called in asking about how to get on the waiting list."
"We (JPF) don’t make group resolutions on whether we support one particular development over another," Richter said. "But we have a general philosophy of having increased density and intensity of uses near transit. We don’t have a specific group stance, but our members tend to support it."
"Really what most people here are opposed to is the density, just as we had people who were opposed to the seven story condos right here (at 5201 W. Lawrence Ave.) The opposition shouldn’t be such a surprise here, we’re a semi-suburban part of Chicago," Bank said.
"I believe that genuine leadership is really about accountability, transparency and a deep respect for people. That’s a must for public officials but too many times we see this lacking. That’s the case here with this teleconference. A teleconference is a way to insulate oneself from serious community dialogue and hide from public opinion. If John Arena really wants to hold a true dialogue with the 45th ward community, then he should convene a meeting in person like other public officials. Let’s not rob the 45th ward of the opportunity to come together as a community to voice their concerns," Marilyn Morales said in a statement. Morales is also running for alderman in the ward.
Arena could not be reached for comment after the town hall, although the alderman indicated that he was in Arizona during the teleconference for family reasons.