Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=105965
Story Retrieval Date: 5/23/2013 12:28:47 PM CST
Many in Hyde Park were left wondering why a letter Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) wrote against the liquor ban was not printed in the Hyde Park Herald until the day after the election.
The Herald publishes once a week on Wednesdays; the alderman’s office believes that the letter was sent to the publisher of the paper, instead of the editor, Gabriel Piemonte, who normally receives letter submissions.
Piemonte said he was surprised when someone from the alderman’s office called to find out why the letter did not run in the Herald’s pre-election issue.
“It’s a strange claim to make ... I routinely receive columns and it’s a pretty routine process,” Piemonte said.
Piemonte said that no one on staff had any record of the letter being received and that the alderman's office had followed the procedure in the past.
Piemonte also said those who submit sensitive editorials usually call to follow up. In this case, he said, no call was made.
He also added that the Herald routinely tries to rush last-minute editorials into the paper when they are of an urgent nature, as this particular one was.
“I think it is too bad, but I am a little confused about the onus being put on us,” Piemonte said.
Something big happened in Hyde Park on Election Day and it wasn’t what you think.
In addition to a local guy being elected president, Hyde Park set another kind of precedent that Tuesday.
The 39th precinct of the 5th ward voted to ban the retail sale of alcohol within in its few-block area by a vote of 255 to 235. The move has halted plans to build two hotels on the site of the long abandoned Doctor’s Hospital building.
This pre-emptive action was praised by some.
“We won against all kinds of odds; everybody was against us,” said Hans Morsbach, a Hyde Park business owner and community activist.
Indeed, Morsbach and other activists did get the referendum passed despite the opposition of Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) and the building’s owner, the University of Chicago.
However, other residents of Hyde Park see the game a little differently.
“I think this is absolutely outrageous and very sad for our neighborhood. I think this is going to be, for many years, a low point in our community,” said Peter Rossi, a Hyde Park resident who blogs for Hyde Park Progress.
Rossi contends that a small group of individuals, who are continually opposed to the University’s development plans, have successfully pushed their agenda on halting projects, including this one, over the years.
The same activists also halted restoration of Promontory Point, Rossi said.
The activists, however, say they are acting out of a concern for the historical and architectural integrity of Hyde Park. Morsbach cites the proposed hotel’s appearance as a major point of concern.
University officials say they have tried to accommodate residents’ concerns.
Robert Rosenberg, associate vice president for public affairs communication, said the university recognizes the pride Hyde Park residents take in the historical legacy of their community. He also said that it was expected that residents would be concerned with issues like parking and crowds.
“These are folks, like anyone, who would be concerned with the quality of life … but we made it clear that we would work with the neighborhood on a solution,” Rosenberg said.
The university planned to lease the site to Merrillville, Ind.-based hotel developer White Lodging. White Lodging’s founder and CEO, Bruce White, is a trustee of the U of C Medical Center.
White planned to build two hotels, a Marriott and Fairfield Inn & Suites, and a restaurant on the site.
To get the referendum placed on the ballot, a petition had to be circulated. Hyde Park resident and activist Greg Lane played a large role in the efforts to get the liquor ban placed on the ballot.
The ballot passed 52 percent to 48 percent, with about 75 percent of the registered voters in the precinct casting ballots.
Lane said he views the results of the vote as a mandate, and argues that any proposal for development that does not preserve the structure of the building would be unsatisfactory.
Lane says that, despite Rosenberg’s assertion, the university’s unwillingness to work with community members on the project led to the current stalemate.
“[Development] will not happen without significant and robust community engagement,” Lane said.
Hairston raises the point that community meetings were in fact conducted.
“The petition was already signed when the community meeting was held,” Hairston said.
Activists started gathering signatures on July 29 and ended on Aug. 6. The community meeting, which Hairston moderated, was Aug. 5.
The petition also shows that it was submitted to the City Clerk’s office very close to the deadline for filing, which was 90 days prior to the Nov. 4 election.
The development had the potential to bring a large amount of jobs to the area, Hairston said.
She also said she believes that the dry vote greatly diminishes the chances that any type of development will occur at the site. It sends a negative message to other developers, not only of the vacant hospital site, but anyone with an interest in the ward as a whole, Hairston said.
“I don’t think [residents] should be able to vote a precinct dry where alcohol is not an issue,” Hairston said.
The university’s approach was also cited by Hairston as one of the reasons the dry vote was successful.
“All of this could have been avoided if the university came to the alderman first with the plan,” Hairston said. “I could have expressed to them the concerns the citizens would have, and the plan could have been revised to suit that.”
Rosenberg responded by noting that the university was in an awkward position because it wasn’t developing the project, merely leasing the land to the developer.
The decision to pursue the dry vote option is, as Hairston pointed out, unusual.
State law allows residents in some areas to vote to ban the retail sale of alcohol.
In Chicago, dry votes happen on the precinct level. The law, in most cases, is used to revoke the liquor license of an establishment, such as a tavern or market, effectively putting it out of business.
The ban was conceived as a way to target businesses that pose a continual nuisance in a neighborhood. Edgewater and areas on the South Side have used the liquor ban to this effect.
Hairston says she does not know of any other dry vote being used the way it was in Hyde Park.
“It’s like killing an ant with a grenade,” Hairston said.
How it happened
Getting the referendum on the ballot was no easy task.
Petitioners are required to gain the signatures of 25 percent of registered voters in the precinct, and there are strict guidelines about gathering signatures and filing the petitions. A single signature can invalidate the entire petition.
Most dry vote attempts fail in the petition stage, said an official at the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Licensing.
But the effort in Hyde Park had some organized support.
UNITE HERE, a hotel workers union, was helpful in pushing the ballot initiative forward.
White Lodging intended to use non-union employees at the hotel and UNITE HERE, which has led the continuing protests at the Congress Plaza Hotel in Downtown Chicago, saw an opportunity to prevent another hotel in Chicago from employing non-union workers.
Anne Marie Strassel, community coordinator for UNITE HERE Local 1, said that the group was never given the opportunity to meet with White Lodging to discuss its concerns. Strassel says she believes Hyde Park needs a hotel, but that the group saw the ban as a way to make sure union workers got jobs at the hotels.
Strassel confirmed that the union was involved in the petition process.
“There was a legal process that we were a part of,” Strassel said.
The union approached the opponents of White Lodging’s plan, Morsbach said, and donated about $4,000 to the effort.
The union and neighborhood activists Lane and Morsbach all contend that they are not at all opposed to a hotel in Hyde Park. They were only opposed to this specific hotel, at that specific site.
Rosenberg said he believed the university did all it could in terms of getting its message on the dry vote across.
But at least one longtime resident who also blogs for Hyde Park Progress sees things differently.
Elizabeth Fama cites a long history of tension between U. of C. and the surrounding community as being at play on this dispute. She said more could have been done in terms of anticipating concerns from area residents.
“The University could have had materials prepared that addressed all those issues, and involved the neighbors in a workshop that made it seem they were addressing the issues as they came up from audience members,” Fama said.
Rosenberg said the university felt it had done enough to get its message out but that “we may have erred on the side of good faith” in assuming that the community would be more eager to embrace the project.
Fama also said she was disappointed in the timing of the ban.
While the economy in general, and the real estate market specifically, is on a major downturn, Fama said this project was an opportunity for development at a time when not much is occurring.
“I do think we could have gotten in under the wire with the last development project,” Fama said.
As far as the future of the site goes, things remain uncertain.
Rosenberg said the university is back to square one in terms of developing the site, vacant since 2000. The university bought it at auction two years ago.
Rosenberg said he is doubtful that White Lodging would pursue plans for a hotel in an area in which liquor cannot be sold. It is also doubtful, he said, that White Lodging would be interested in developing a hotel elsewhere in Hyde Park.
“They had indicated to us that this was the only site they were interested in,” Rosenberg said.
The possibility of a future hotel in Hyde Park seems to be a hopeful, yet uncertain, prospect.
“There are potential locations for a hotel that we are looking at … we will continue to work for it,” Rosenberg said.