Monday, January 28, 2008

Is Community Input An Illusion?

Tribune reporters

Chicago aldermen wield near-absolute power over development in their wards, but most insist they get neighborhood input from community groups or handpicked advisory panels before approving or rejecting projects.

What they don't say is that those groups often are stacked with real estate agents, developers and campaign donors with vested interests in the zoning decisions made by the aldermen.

One alderman backed zoning changes that let a developer tear down several modest homes on the Near West Side and replace them with three-story condos, projects that were OKd by a community group.
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  1. Article author Robert Becker was quick to reply to my email on his and Dan's article. Unfortunately I don't have the breadth of experience the rest of you Uptown veterans have since I've only been here a couple of years, but it would be nice to compile a list of facts (as best we know them) about how Uptown development specifically has suffered at the hands of the Alderman. (Please save personal attacks on the Alderman for another thread). Robert did mention to me he would check out UU for more info.

  2. I could write a book on this. Shall we call it Uptown War and Peace?

  3. Wilson Yard TIF
    There were several meetings (referred to as charrettes) where anyone could provide input. A listing of what was requested is available on the alderman's website. If you look at the requests and the actual plan, they differ remarkablely. Ald. Shiller states no other TIF received so much input from the community before. She's right. However, all input by the community was ignored. When the most recent Wilson Yard plan was given to the community, 9 of 10 block clubs protested it and around 2,400 people signed an online petition on Uptown Neighborhood Council's website protesting it as well. Shiller's response was that the public was misinformed, and that the housing portion would be for working families earning up to $50,000 per year. Per a report that developer Peter Holsten filed with IHDA, 79% of the housing would be for families with extremely low and very low income with the remainder for families with low income. Also reported by Peter Holsten was a statement that families forced to leave other CHA highrises would have first pick at the Wilson Yard housing. The community requested mixed-income housing with aspects of homeownership, as is done in other areas of the city. Shiller stated that this was 100% rental mixed-income. The response of the community was that this was a mix of low-income and not mixed-income. Shiller then proceeded to let residents know that this was not Lincoln Park and that they could move elsewhere if they didn't agree with the plan. An organization known as COURAJ, however, wanted all low-income rental housing. It should be noted that COURAJ is opposed to homeownership in all its forms and is regarded by many as a very small extremist far left-wing group. Many of its members believe it is discriminatory to do drug arrests.

    The Wilson Yard Task Force
    The block club within the Wilson Yard TIF was never invited to be a part of the planning process. Actually, this task force was not allowed to be a task force. Ald. Shiller told the participants that their purpose was to disseminate information. No minutes were ever provided. No listing of participants ever provided. Meetings were held during the week day and were normally canceled with less than 24 hours notice. No schedule of set meetings was ever done.

    Zoning Variences
    If you look up and down Broadway, Sheridan, and Wilson, you will see numerous hair and nail salons. Zoning requires that residents within 250 feet be notified of a hair or nail salon coming in that would be located within 1000 feet of another hair or nail salon. These matters never came up to the Zoning Committee, mostly made up of the alderman's supporters. Most of us are not aware of any notices going out to any residents about this.

    Sylvia Center
    Cornerstone Ministries requested a zoning variance to establish another homeless shelter, making it the fourth homeless shelter on the block. The community protested, stating that the Cornerstone Ministries had a long history of poor management, and that the current facility had over 30 building code violations. Police were called to the shelters on average of 5 times per week. Children were observed playing in the dumpsters. Many male sex offenders also were living in one of the shelters on that block. The zoning variance passed because in the words of the Zoning Committee Chairman, "If Ald. Shiller says it's going to be safe, then I believe it's going to be safe." When he said it, he winked to the audience. With that, it passed.

    Proposed Day Labor
    Ald. Shiller was approached by a day labor wanting to go into the 4800 block of N. Sheridan. No block club was contacted for input. No residents were contacted for input. Social services and Uptown United, however, were contacted by the Alderman's office for their input.

    While other wards encourage block clubs to provide input into matters in close proximity to them, Ald. Shiller routinely refuses to contact them, and in one letter from the Alderman's office to a resident, residents were referred to as "bad apples" for their complaining.

    Ward Community Meetings
    While Ald. Shiller will meet with neighborhood organizations on the southern end of the ward, she will not hold any ward community meetings because she states the people are too angry.

    CAPS meetings
    Ald. Shiller will not attend CAPS meetings or send a representative to them because "residents are too angry" at her. CAPS schedules are not posted on her website, yet she does complain that not enough people attend them. By the way, she asked that the CAPS grant to the 46th Ward, whose purpose was to notify residents of upcoming CAPS meetings, be removed. Still, she insists that she's supportive of CAPS and held a CAPS meeting at Uplift School about a month before her election without notifying the CAPS facilitator.

  4. Wow, that just about sums it up for the Tribune folks.

  5. The Dept of Planning plays right along with these aldermen. Often there is a requirement that community meetings and surveys be conducted.

    When the survey was sent out for Wilson Yards it was sent by the Dept of Planning using a mailing list provided by the alderman instead of a list of all neighbors, property owners, or voters.

    When my highrise of 800 persons a block away from Wilson Yards received no mailings, I contacted the Dept of Planning and asked that we receive the survey also. I was told that that would be impossible because they were out of money for any printing or postage. I said I would distribute them in my mailroom or door to door myself and they said that would not be permissable.

    I could not understand this because low income housing residents many blocks north of the planned development area received the mailings while those of us in the area did not.

    Several weeks later, they apparantly did not get an adequate response and send a second mailing those persons and others Helen identified, but still not to us.

    I filed a FOIA with the Dept of Planning and went downtown to speak to with project staffer Oneida Pape. Both the FOIA office and Oneida indicated that their office did not bother to keep the mailing list of names.

  6. All aldermen are protected from getting investigated by the City Inspector General, but the Dept. of Planning is not. This might be something to report. Shiller would still be protected, but it would be one less department that she could manipulate.

  7. Regarding the Zoning Committee: if you ask Helen, she will tell you they meet. If you ask the members of this committee, they will tell you they haven't met since late 2006.

  8. Seriously though, has anyone sent that list to the Tribune authors?

  9. We can't get the list because Planning won't give it to us but Planning will admit that they get the survey names from the Aldemen. We knew where the surveys were sent from people who lived and worked in the selected low income buildings that received them. BTW, the survey questioned whether there should be more low income housing versus other types of development so targeting the survey solely to those living in low income housing intentially biased the results. Yet, the Aldermna announced that the community had spoken and that it wanted Wilson Yard to be a low income housing development.

  10. The survey was bogus. I have a whole file folder on how it was rigged:
    1. The original survey was tampered with when someone hand wrote under OTHER a line for “low cost housing”. 570 surveys were returned with this exact hand written response checked off. That would mean that 570 people hand wrote under OTHER that exact response. Hard to believe.

    2. Retail was broken into 22 different categories Dry Cleaners, Book Store, Florist etc. So all votes for commercial retail were diffused into 22 different directions and weighed equally against “low cost housing”. When Shiller announced the results she phrased it this way “low-cost housing was second only to the movie theater (which got 582 votes). Surveys can be interpreted any way a politician wishes to interpret them. A more accurate way to look at the survey would be to add up all commercial retail and weigh it against low cost housing then you get a more true analysis. Here is how it would look. There were 1762 survey respondents. Each respondent was allowed up to five choices. Not all took that option.

    Total number of selections/choices recorded: 6,398
    Number choosing selections OTHER than “low cost housing”: 5,828 or 91%
    Number choosing selections other than housing 5,613: or 88%
    Number choosing retail or related commercial selections: 3,718 or 58%
    Number choosing housing selections: 785 or 12%
    Number choosing “low cost housing” selection: 570 or 9%

    Hard to believe that most of Wilson Yard will be low income housing when it was only 9% of the selections.

    BTW I also did a FOIA of the surveys and was told it was under the control of the consultant hired to conduct the survey - Goodman Williams Group. And you can’t FOIA a private company.

  11. "And you can’t FOIA a private company."

    My, my ... isn't THAT convenient?

    Still - good job on getting those numbers. It'd be interesting to have a local news camera crew saunter over to Shiller's office and ask her, directly, about what you've found.

  12. "Ald. Shiller states no other TIF received so much input from the community before. She's right."

    well, this is hard to measure

    for the record Moore also claims HIS TIFs in the 49th had the mostest community input

  13. "you can’t FOIA a private company"

    true, but...

    "the surveys and was told it was under the control of the consultant"

    this is a crock

    public dollars paid for the survey

    they are public property

    if you want to pursue this I would consider contacting the IL atty Gen Public Access Counselor

  14. Its absolutely not true that you cannot FOIA info held by one of the city's private consultants. Wrong, Wrong, Wrong.

    The test for what is available for FOIA is whether government funds were expended. If the Dept of Planning hires an outside consultant there is no FOIA-proof firewall preventing you from getting that data. They just want you to think there is. And believe me, I know they try. They've done it to me. Fortunately, I have that law degree.

    Under Illinois law, there are only a handful of acceptable reasons to deny a FOIA request. Go to this link to see what they are:

    You can file an appeal. There are pro bono legal services available to Uptown residents to do this (its very easy). And you can file a complaint with Lisa Madigan's office c/o:

    Terry Mutchler via her secretary 217-524-1503
    See this web site for more info.

    I can see we need to post a few lessons on the art of FOIA's.

  15. Oh, yes. Here are the magic buzz words you might want to use in your response to the FOIA officer:

    Dear FOIA officer,
    You can't contract around FOIA if its related to a city function.

    Now hand it over A-hole.

  16. This means we can get a copy of the contract signed by Target from Peter Holsten. All this time when we requested it before, we were told no.

  17. And under the Open Meetings Act you can request information about when meetings between your city officials (Alderbeast) and others (Holstein and zoning committee) are held so that you can attend.

    Even phone meetings. And you can get some meeting notes.

    You don't ask the alderman directly because she is not the governmental body. You contact the City Council office FOIA officer and they can tell you to whom to send the requests.

    For Wilson Yard, you contact the Dept of Planning FOIA officer.

    Now, just remember, the Press uses these laws all the time. Illinois has some of the weakest FOIA laws in the nation. Government bodies illegally reject FOIA requests all the time. And, it may take some time to get them to comply.

    But you have tools in your arsenal also.

  18. I live on kenmore 2 blocks south of wilson yard and have NEVER once received information on what is going on w/Wilson yard - I have lived in the area since the fire in 1996 and have repeatedly call hs office for information, she and her office staff have never once sent information out - so if the news media thinks that people are making things up, they should dig deeper and go door to door and ask people what is going on.

  19. Helen's excuse is that you are outside the boundaries of the TIF district. Yet, the persons way the hell up north who received were mailed the surveys twice were out of the TIF district also.