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In the shadow of Wrigley Field, 46th Ward alderman Helen Shiller has been running in close elections longer than Cubs stalwart Ryne Sandberg has been standing around second base. In 1975, she lost her first City Council race to ward committeeman Ralph Axelrod by about a thousand votes. In 1979, she beat Axelrod in the first election, but lost the runoff by 247 votes.
In 1987 she turned the tables. After losing to incumbent alderman Jerome Orbach in the first election, she beat him in the runoff by fewer than 500 votes–51 percent to 49 percent.
Now she’s at it again. In this February’s election she nosed out her main challenger, attorney Mike Quigley, who has the mayor’s and the regular ward organization’s backing. But her 49-plus percent of the vote was not enough to avoid a runoff. So next Tuesday, 46th Ward voters will choose between Shiller and Quigley.
If City Hall has its way, this one won’t be close. The mayor has stumped for Quigley and poured up to $25,000 into his campaign coffers. Daley’s campaign manager, David Wilhelm, has weighed in with consulting assistance, while phone calls from Daley’s top political aide, Tim Degnan, have helped recruit a force of hundreds of workers (many of them city employees working after-hours) from other wards all over the city to canvass the 46th. Quigley’s commercial phone bank has been so thorough that last week even Shiller’s campaign office received a phone call boosting Quigley.
The main issue in the campaign is development: Quigley claims that Shiller stifles it, while Shiller calls Quigley a pawn of outside development interests (including those who bankroll the mayor’s campaign). In the following interview Shiller responds to Quigley’s charges and explains her approach to governing the ward.
Brevity not being among Shiller’s strong points, the following is an edited transcript of the interview:
Doug Cassel: Your opponent claims that you are hostile to development of the ward. Are you?
Helen Shiller: No. We’ve had every kind of development, both private and public. The ward now has over 2,000 new or preserved housing units, about half at market rates, and about half for low- or moderate-income people.
During my term our ward has attracted more city capital-improvement funds–$16 million–than all but three of the city’s 50 wards. We’ve had more sewers, nearly two miles of them, replaced in my four years than in the ten years before. That’s relieved basement flooding problems that people had for years and were told nothing could be done.
We’ve also resurfaced over 72 blocks of streets and over 38 blocks of sidewalks. We have four newly rehabbed play lots and we reequipped parks throughout the ward. Nearly every commercial strip has had new construction or refurbishing. And we’ve gone from almost 100 vacant lots down to all but about 20 developed or slated for development or parkland.
DC: But your opponent says that development in the ward has taken place in spite of you.
HS: What I’ve been doing is to seize every opportunity there is. We would never have come out in the top four wards in getting city development funds for infrastructure unless we fought for it. I’ve worked anytime a developer has come into my office. I want to know how the city might be able to help.
But I also explore what they’re willing to do to ensure diverse development in the community. That’s how we came out with a good mix of market- and low- and moderate-income housing.
DC: Your opponent says that you’ve changed your tune, that in the beginning you blocked development.
HS: That’s not true. The main example he always gives is the [developer Randall] Langer property at Wilson and Magnolia. When I took office in 1987, Langer’s proposal to put up a commercial building there was pending in City Council. I received mail and petitions opposing it.
I could have just killed it. Traditionally, that’s what aldermen do to proposals they don’t like. But I didn’t see my role as being to say this is a development I like and this is one I don’t like. Who am I or for that matter you to individually make a decision and say this is right or wrong?
DC: So what did you do?
HS: One of the first things I did was to set up zone committees. We broke up the ward into originally nine and then later eight areas. Each area is based entirely on geography and has as much cohesiveness as possible, not like precincts cutting across major thoroughfares. Each area had a zone committee of up to 15 people. Each member had to agree to two things. First, they had to get the facts of a situation before making recommendations to me. Second, they had to develop a process that can create the potential for participation by the largest number of people in the area affected. For example, many people can’t come to meetings, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want input into something that’s happening on their block.
DC: And you turned over the Langer proposal to your zone committee for that area?
HS: Right. As it turns out, they were against it. But I still didn’t accept their initial recommendation to stop the development.
DC: Why were they against it?
HS: At that point Langer was talking about a five-store commercial building on one small lot. Five stores would generate a lot of traffic and therefore parking problems. There was no place to park. And second, this guy had been involved in displacing quite a few families from large-family housing and now was saying that he didn’t want this land to be residential anymore.
And so the zoning committee met and they were about 50-50 home owners or condo owners versus renters, and they all lived in the area from Montrose to Lawrence and Clark to Broadway. And they just said no way.
DC: Why didn’t you accept their initial recommendation against the proposal?
HS: I said, what do you have to show me for your decision? They said they felt they represented enough people. And I said, you didn’t grasp the point of the zoning committee. It’s not for you to make the decision on your own. It’s for you to take the information you develop out to the community in the broadest possible way, to give the largest number of people a chance to have their input. And once that’s done, to evaluate the response from the community. Then I’m more likely to take your recommendation. But I’m not gonna take it just because 15 people get together in a room and have a discussion.
DC: Did the community then get input?
HS: Yes. The zone committee members did a door-to-door survey in I think it was a two-square-block area around the lot and got a 70 percent return. The majority of the people, over 60 percent I think it was, rejected the zoning change, some because of the parking, some because of the housing issue.
DC: So in the end your committee blocked the development?
HS: No. It wasn’t only the zone committee but the community residents who opposed the original proposal. And we ended up getting a better deal.
HS: Last year we worked out a deal with Langer and the Habitat Company, the receiver appointed by the federal court to manage CHA’s scattered-site program. Langer agreed to sell four of his properties to the receiver. The receiver plans to use them along with five other lots to build about 80 units of scattered-site low-income housing in the ward. In return, Langer will get two city lots in locations he wants, along with his zoning change at Wilson and Magnolia. Only now the commercial property there will be for two entities, not five, and there will be parking and more retail space across the street.
So the upshot is that both community concerns–parking and housing–will be met.
DC: Is the deal closed?
HS: It’s been signed. Bids on the city properties have been received. At my request, the City Council Housing Committee has approved them. I expect approval by the full council shortly.
DC: But it’s taken years.
HS: Yes, but the result is a lot better in the long run than if we’d just let Langer go ahead without taking care of either the parking or housing needs of the community.
DC: Your critics argue that this process is basically an elaborate subterfuge to thwart development.
HS: It isn’t. It’s a democratic process to shape development. Usually the community supports a development, but makes suggestions to improve it. As in Challenger Park, for instance.
DC: What is Challenger Park?
HS: A strip of land between the Howard el tracks and Graceland Cemetery, running from Irving Park to Montrose. The Tribune Company, which owns the Cubs, originally wanted a big chunk of it for parking. Some of the residents wanted a park. I referred it to a zone committee, in fact, two zone committees bordering on the area.
DC: What did they do?
HS: The main committee involved held two public meetings and did two different surveys of community residents. They did an initial survey just to determine if they should proceed at all in even considering this. And they did a more thorough survey later.
DC: I assume these people are unpaid?
HS: It’s totally volunteer.
DC: Why would people do that?
HS: Because that’s where they live. And that’s the point. I really believe that if you solve a problem from the point of view of the people most affected, you will ultimately have a much better impact on everyone. People on the zone committees have been able to see that not only can they participate, but that it’s possible for their neighbors too, and out of this come better ideas. And in almost every instance, in different parts of the ward, this process, however it got defined in the area, has allowed there to be a change in what was originally proposed, in a way that was better for more people.
DC: Doesn’t the process slow down development?
HS: Sometimes, but the results make it worth it. A lot of people have said to me, “Why should you bother with this? No one else does it. The alderman just says this is what we’re gonna do.” Half the people don’t know whether they like it or not, so no one goes after the alderman. But I put myself out there every time. I think I ought to because in every situation you may get 15 points of view, but that’s how you end up with the solution that’s most responsive to the most people.
DC: What happened on Challenger Park?
HS: The door-to-door survey of people who live near there came up with a vote of 189 in favor of accepting the proposal and 129 against, something like that. That gave me a very strong foundation to negotiate from and we ended up with a much better deal.
DC: How is it better?
HS: The first proposal, the one that was in the survey, was that the Chicago Cubs would put a parking lot in the southern half of the area between the el tracks and the cemetery. They would do some infrastructure work, and in the northern end they would contribute $50,000 to a park.
DC: And what did you end up with?
HS: The Park District will develop a park in the northern 60 percent of the area, not 50 percent as originally proposed, and they will also develop the southern 40 percent as a mixed-recreational area, including sodded fields for soccer and volleyball. The asphalt will be used for basketball and ice skating as well as parking for home games. And the Chicago Cubs are gonna pay 60 percent of the cost of the whole area. So the process was well worth it for the community.
DC: Do you use this kind of process for all your decisions?
HS: We are elected every four years. In those elections some issues are clearly defined. To the extent that’s true, it’s not necessary to have this kind of process. But many things come up. You’re not elected on the basis of a decision about this zoning change that affects the people who live there, or the direction of their street. Of course, the Langer proposal and Challenger Park were more complicated and controversial than most. For smaller proposals the process is quicker and simpler. But I think it’s important that people themselves be involved. I think everyone should be involved in making democracy work because that’s what allows us to solve problems.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.