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Referenda Give Voters a Voice on Schools, Development, Jobs

Voters in precincts across Chicago will consider referenda on a range of local issues in the March 21 general primary.

[Updated3-22-06: Outcomes have been noted based on unofficial results of the Chicago Board of Elections.]

22nd Ward: High School Boundaries

A referendum calling on CPS to “draw attendance boundaries for Little Village High School to only allow students from the surrounding community to attend” is being opposed by Little Village Community Development Corp., the group which helped organize the hunger strike in 2000 which led to the creation of the new high school.

“This is not only divisive, it is unconstitutional,” said Jesus Garcia, executive director of LVCDC.

State Senator Martin Sandoval initiated the referendum complaining that the high school draws students from North Lawndale while some in Little Village are excluded.

In fact the students from North Lawndale live closer to the high school than students in the east portion of Little Village, said Jaime de Leon of LVDCC. He said the referendum has “racist implications” and is “based on the notion that African American students from North Lawndale are taking slots that should go to [Latino] kids from Little Village.”

He added that the school has a limited capacity and couldn’t accommodate all of Little Village’s high school students “The referendum would take us back to square one in terms of overcrowding,” he said.

At a recent meeting, parents of students at the high school “want to protect the way the school is set up,” de Leon said. “They don’t want their kids to go to an overcrowded school and they like the fact that their kids go to a school with more than one race.”

Leaders of the high school as well as nonprofit partners including Lawndale Christian Development Corporation and Instituto del Progreso Latino also oppose the referendum and defend the school’s diversity.

“We urge our elected officials to focus their efforts on improving the other schools in the area, instead of attacking our school,” said Rito Martinez, principal of the Social Justice School, one of four small schools at the high school.

[Measure approved by 54.8 percent of voters]

For more: Jaime de Leon, Little Village Community Development Corp., 773-447-0776

25th Ward: Downzoning

In 13 Pilsen precincts in the 25th Ward, Pilsen Alliance has a referendum asking voters whether Alderman Danny Solis should downzone the neighborhood — in general limiting new residential construction to single family homes — in order “to slow down gentrification” and “preserve the historic designation of Pilsen.”

Last month Pilsen was designated a state historic district, making homeowners eligible for an eight-year property tax freeze — if they invest 25 percent of their building’s assessed value into rehab.

The designation “could be a way to preserve buildings, but it could lead to speculation” and higher property taxes for residents, most of whom are low-income and would have difficulty qualifying for a tax freeze, said Alejandra Ibanez of Pilsen Alliance. “The benefits [of the designation] don’t outweigh the challenges and limitations for people with lower incomes,” she said.

“If [Solis] wants historic preservation, he’s going to have to put a moratorium on teardowns and he’s going to have to downzone” to head off “speculators [who] are buying bungalows and two-flats, demolishing them and building three- and four-story condos,” Ibanez said.

She is concerned about “misinformation” including claims that downzoning would lower property values. “That couldn’t be more wrong,” she said.

“Pilsen is already so hot it’s on fire,” said Ibanez. She said property taxes there doubled between 2000 and 2004.

In the last two years the group has lost campaigns to block two large condominium projects, and residents were discouraged after being “beat up and shut down” by aldermen and planning commissioners when they tried to testify against the projects, Ibanez said.

Pilsen Alliance recently completed a survey of all Pilsen’s lots, noting zoning, usage, ownership and taxes, Ibanez said. A report on their findings and policy recommendations is forthcoming, she said.

[Measure approved by 75.5 percent of voters]

For more: Alejandra Ibanez, 312-243-5440

35th Ward: Development and Jobs

Alderman Rey Colon is supporting three referenda in the 35th Ward, and the Logan Square Neighborhood Association is supporting two of them and opposing one.

LSNA supports referenda backing an inclusionary zoning ordinance (establishing affordable housing setasides in larger new developments and rehabs) and the Big Box Living Wage Ordinance requiring new retail establishments larger than 75,000 square feet to pay a living wage and provide health benefits.

The inclusionary zoning measure “is a great tool for communities like Logan Square where the pool of rental and homeownership options for working families is shrinking as prices rise,” said Nancy Aardema of LSNA. The living wage ordinance has roots in an LSNA campaign in the late 1990s that won a community benefits agreement with a new Costco at Clybourne and Diversy providing job training, living wage jobs, and health insurance.

A third referendum calls on the alderman to “support commercial and residential redevelopment of the Fullerton/Milwaukee/Armitage TIF.” It gives the Alderman a “blank check,” said Aardema, and undercuts against community involvement in planning, which LSNA supports.

She points out that LSNA is supporting two development proposals in the TIF area that maintain local businesses, preserve existing buildings and remain in character with the rest of the block.

[Inclusionary zoning referendum passed with 76.7 percent of vote; Big Box Living Wage referendum passed with 83.5 percent; TIF referendum defeated with 56.3 percent of voters opposed.]

For more: Nancy Aardema, Logan Square Neighborhood Association, 773-384-4370

48th Ward – Senn High School

A referendum in the 48th ward calls on the Chicago Board of Education to “establish a formal process to receive community input regarding removal of the Rickover military academy at Senn High School.”

The decision to establish the military academy of Senn was an example of “decision makers holding meetings to say they’ve gotten community input when the decision has already been made,” said Christopher Persons of Citizens for Inclusive Government, a group formed to sponsor the referendum.

“At every opportunity for community input” on the Rickover academy “the input was strongly in opposition — from teachers, students, and the community — and it went ahead anyway,” Persons said. He said school and elected officials deferred to Ald. Mary Ann Smith on the decision.

Senn’s LSC opposed installing the academy unanimously, Persons said — and when Smith established her own “Senn Tomorrow” committee, that group also overwhelmingly opposed the academy. Smith then dissolved the committee, he said.

The group’s voter canvas has found support for the referendum among “a strong majority of residents who are in favor of removing the academy” — and also among supporters of the academy “who agree there ought to be a thorough and honest process,” he said.

“They’ll deny it and deny it, but [the academy] is a recruitment scheme” — especially in a school with many lower-income students, Persons said. With rising test scores and a student body speaking 56 languages, Senn should consider establishing a peace academy, an international studies program, or a language academy, he said.

[Referendum approved by 69.7 percent of voters.]

For more: Christopher Persons, Citizens for Inclusive Government, 773-370-3055

49th Ward – Community Benefits

Five Rogers Park precincts will vote on whether employers who receive public funds should be required to hire locally, pay a living wage, and respect the right to organize. The referendum was placed on the ballot by the Rogers Park Community Action Network, which is seeking jobs commitments at the Howard CTA reconstruction project as well as two local TIF districts.

[Measure approved by 87.9 percent of voters]

For more: Fran Tobin, Rogers Park Community Action Network, 773-973-7888

Wards 24, 28, 29, and 37 – Jobs for Ex-Offenders

A referendum on the ballot in four wards with the highest number of people returning from prison seeks to lift employment barriers for nonviolent ex-offenders for public jobs. It backs legislation removing criminal background questions on state, county and municipal job applications.

The four wards cover Austin, North Lawndale, and East Garfield Park, the three community areas with the highest concentration of returning ex-offenders, according to a recent Urban Institute report.

According to the report, over half of the over 20,000 ex-offenders who return to Chicago each year end up in one of seven neighborhoods.

“We believe that if the public sector agrees to help more people [with criminal backgrounds] secure jobs, the private sector will follow,” said La Shawn Ford, a candidate for state representative in the 8th district who organized the referendum drive.

Ford points out that the federal government does not ask job applicants about their criminal background, and several states limit questions on criminal background on their job applications.

“I truly believe that if individuals are able to gain employment, they will be better citizens and better parents,” he said.

Ford said that volunteers he organized collected 4,000 signatures for the referendum in two weekends. “That shows how pressing the issue is — for ex-offenders and for society.”

[Passed overwhelmingly in all three wards; combined totals: 12,618 yes, 1,015 no]

For more: La Shawn Ford, 773-378-5902

Communities Meet on Coal Plants

Residents of Pilsen and Little Village – home of the city’s two coal-fired power plants – will testify along with environmental and health experts and elected officials at a community hearing on proposals to regulate coal plant emissions on Monday, February 13.

The Fisk and Crawford power plants are the two largest industrial sources of air pollution in Chicago. The Illinois EPA has proposed new rules to curb mercury emissions from the plants, and IEPA controls on nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide are due soon under the federal government’s Clean Air Interstate Rule program, said Dorian Breuer of the Pilsen/Southwest Side Green Party.

Meanwhile, a city ordinance to require up-to-date emissions control technology at the two plants has been stalled in the City Council for three years.

Breuer cited studies showing that breathing outdoor air in Chicago can have health effects comparable to second-hand smoke, including a 25 percent increased risk of heart disease and higher incidence of asthma. Coal plant emissions are the second most significant source of air pollution in the city, after auto emissions, he said.

Officials of the IEPA and the city’s Department of Environment will attend the community hearing, which will begin at 7 p.m., following a press conference at 6:30 p.m., at Dvorak Park Field House, 1119 W. Cullerton.

Pilsen Artists Open Studios

Latino artists will open their studios to the public throughout Pilsen for 18ST: Pilsen Open Studios on October 30 and 31, the weekend before the Day of the Dead.

Sixty artists are participating, including many well-known muralists whose work is found throughout the neighborhood.

Visitors to Hector Duarte’s studio can see the mosaic mural work-in-progress that will be installed at the Western station on the Blue Line.

Along with private studios, neighborhood cafes and community art spaces will display artists’ work. The APO Building, 1436 W. 18th, will feature artwork by Juarez High School students along with a Day of the Dead altar and theater and circus performances by youth from ProsArts Studio. Across the street, Cafe Jumping Bean, 1439 W. 18th, features a Day of the Dead group show.

Many studios are within walking distance but a free shuttle bus will serve farther-flung locations; maps are available at any paricipating studio or at

Communities Address Zoning Remap

The City Council recently moved the start date of the new zoning code back from November 1 to August 1, and aldermen are faced with remapping their wards to include new classifications and districts. In some cases community groups are helping in the process.

The Metropolitan Planning Council has provided training and hand-held computers to groups in Lawndale and other communities to “identify zoning assets and challenges” — places where new designations might help foster community-oriented development, said Pete Skosey. Working with MPC, the Industrial Council of Nearwest Chicago has identified a section of Grand Avenue which could serve as a commercial buffer between residential sections to the north and a planned manufacturing district to the south.

Aside from MPC’s efforts, the Pilsen Alliance recently won overwhelming support for a referendum in the 25th ward calling for wider notification and open community meetings on any zoning variances. The group is now ramping up a Pilsen Community Zoning Board.

Having supported a similar referendum in the 35th ward, new Alderman Rey Colon is now holding precinct meetings — and the 35th Ward Community Action Council is conducting a door-to-door canvas — to forge a community process for mapping out development goals.

Alderman Tom Tunney (44th Ward) has 20 community groups in his Community Development Council working on a zoning remap; one member is Nate Hutchinson from Lakeview Action Coalition’s affordable housing committee. Hutchinson is also active with groups promoting less auto-centered development. Higher density facilitates affordability as well as pedestrian activity and public transit, he argues, but public education on the issue is needed.

Developers who get zoning variances receive a significant public benefit, and it would be reasonable to expect some return — like affordable housing set-asides, says John McDermott of Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

Hearing Called on Blue Line Restoration

Under pressure from neighborhood groups in the Blue Line Transit Task Force as well as several aldermen, CTA president Frank Kreusi has agreed to testify at a hearing on restoring weekend and late-night service on the Cermak branch of the Blue Line.

Kreusi had refused numerous requests for meetings with the Task Force, said Jaime de Leon of Little Village Community Development Corporation, but he has agreed to testify at a hearing of the City Council’s transportation committee scheduled for July 19.

The Task Force has been working since 1998 to restore service on the Blue Line, the only transit line in the city without weekend service. A recent report by the Task Force found strong demand for restored services among riders. The study compared ridership on other CTA lines and other factors and concluded that Blue Line service cuts discriminate against low-income minority communities.

“There are people here who have to turn down jobs because they can’t get to them,” said Maurice Redd of the Lawndale Neighborhood Organization. With an average family income of $18,000 and a 50 percent poverty rate, there are a lot of one-car and no-car households. “The census showed 15 percent of our community works third shift,” said Redd. “In parts of the community, after 12 or 1 there’s no way to get around at all.”

Many Little Village residents work in the hospitality industry downtown or around O’Hare, said de Leon. Students attend high schools and colleges downtown. And there’s no way to get to city events downtown, which are funded by residents’ taxes, he said.

CTA officials have said they won’t consider restoring service until reconstruction is completed in January. Task Force members say reconstruction is ahead of schedule and may be complete by October — and that what work remains is comparable to the scope of the Brown Line reconstruction, which is being carried out without service disruptions. “We need more accountability,” said Redd, welcoming the City Council’s intervention.

The Task Force had hoped to restore service by this summer. “Every day it continues, people are denied access to jobs, people can’t get to festivals,” said Alejandra Ibanez of the Pilsen Alliance.


While Task Force members focus on restoring “24-7″ service, other community groups are worried that if service is restored, it will be rerouted into phase one of a new Circle Line.

The CTA is finishing up a $33 million project refurbishing an old section of elevated tracks and running test trains, while working on a plan to divert the Blue Line’s Cermak branch trains at Polk and Paulina up to the Green Line before routing them downtown, said Jacqueline Leavy of the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group.

It’s described as phase one of a Circle Line which would link gentrifying neighborhoods around the Loop with the downtown, and which would ultimately cost billions of dollars. “And nobody has asked for it, and there’s been no discussion of it,” Leavy said. She points out that the CTA would be building a new system in areas already well served by public transportation, while “huge swatches of the city are underserved by rapid transit.”

“It means the Red Line won’t be extended to 130th, the extension of the Orange Line to Ford City will get no priority, and the South East Side will continue to have no access to rapid transit,” said Leavy. And it means the long-standing proposal for a Mid-City Transit Way, linking O’Hare and Midway as well as existing CTA and Metra lines, will languish.

“We’re very comfortable with the way [the Cermak branch] is set up, with direct access to downtown,” said Jo Ann Bradley of the Community Action Group of North Lawndale. “We don’t see a benefit to the circle line.”

Bradley scores CTA for lack of transparency. “They say they haven’t decided [on the Circle Line] but they’ve already spent millions of dollars on it.”

“They make their plans in secret and come out and hold what I call puppet hearings and slant everything to make it look like people want what they’ve already planned,” said Bradley. “Nobody out here is asking for the Blue Line to be rerouted up to some Circle Line,” she said.

Noting that as now configured, the Cermak branch connects the major Latino communities in the city, Miguel Turnil of Little Village Environmental Justice Organization said, “They are not doing this to benefit the community.” LVEJO is collecting signatures on petitions and postcards saying “24-7 and no reroute,” Turnil said.

Communities Look to City for Coal Plant Clean-up

With the federal government backtracking on emissions standards for coal-fired power plants, community activists are stepping up pressure for local action.

Dozens of environmental activists, health experts and students converged on Mayor Daley’s office on Dec. 11 to urge him to back Ald. Edward Burke’s Clean Power Ordinance. They announced that a referendum backing the ordinance will be on the ballot next spring in two precincts, near the Fisk coal plant in Pilsen and the Crawford plant in Little Village, both owned by Midwest Generation.

The 40-year-old plants predate the 1977 Clean Air Act and thus are exempt from its emission standards. They have high emissions of sulfur, mercury, carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, and a Harvard School of Public Health study estimated the two plants are responsible for 40 deaths, 550 emergency room visits, and 2800 asthma attacks a year.

Burke’s ordinance would require them to reduce toxic emissions by 90 percent by the year 2006, which would necessitate installing modern cleaning technology or switching to coal gassification or natural gas.

No hearings have been held on the ordinance, and activists attribute this to lack of support from the Mayor. “Mayor Daley likes to say he’s the greenest mayor in the country, but he hasn’t done anything for low-income communities of color,” said Francisco Rios of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.

On the state level, the General Assembly voted this year to authorize the Illinois EPA to study coal plant emissions and propose new standards. One possible economic advantage is that new coal-burning technology would allow coal plants in Illinois to use high-sulfur Illinois coal.

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