As we’ve recently reported, the 49th Ward is holding its fifth participatory budgeting election this year, the 45th Ward is holding its second, and the 22nd Ward is taking the process for a spin for the first time. However, the 5th and 46th wards, which experimented with PB last year, won’t be taking part.
It’s no shock that Alderman Leslie Hairston’s 5th Ward, on the south lakefront, isn’t holding a PB election: last year, only about 100 out of the district’s 50,000-plus residents voted. In Alderman Joe Moore’s 49th Ward, largely made of Rogers Park, a whopping 1,400 people cast ballots. John Arena’s 45th, largely Jefferson Park, and James Cappleman’s 46th, largely Uptown, drew 650 and 390 voters, respectively.
Hairston’s office didn’t return my call, but in January, the Hyde Park Herald reported that the alderman decided not to stage an election this year because of the low turnout. She also cited the expense of running the election, which she said included $60,000 for a staffer to administer the program, plus money out of her own pocket for materials and refreshments, and added that some constituents found the PB process too time-consuming.
A resident who helped organize the election blamed the low turnout on the location of the poling place, in a relatively remote corner of the ward. A candidate who ran against Hairston in the last election attributed the lack of participation to constituents being unhappy with the alderman’s leadership.
One possible factor in the low turnout that wasn’t mentioned in the Herald is Hairston’s decision to exclude several nontraditional ideas for promoting biking and transit use from the ballot. Unlike the other three aldermen who held elections, Hairston designated these proposals as “service requests” that should instead be funded by city departments, the CTA or the park district. However, street, sidewalk and lighting repairs, which can also be paid for by city agencies, were left on the PB ballot. The winning three projects were an urban garden, street lamp improvements, and new lighting in Metra viaducts.
In contrast, last year’s election in the 46th Ward, largely Uptown, was a grand slam for groundbreaking transportation projects. Residents opted to fund SherMon Plaza, a project that will connect a traffic island at Sheridan/Montrose/Broadway to the sidewalk to create a new public space, and the Leland Greenway, leading from Clark to the lakefront. They also chose to bankroll crosswalks, pedestrian countdown signals and traffic calming, and to pay for building or refreshing bike lanes on several streets in the ward. The other winning proposals were for security cameras in Sheridan Park and a left-turn signal at Sheridan/Irving Park.
With a respectable turnout it its first year, leading to several innovative projects being chosen, it seems like the 46th Ward PB election was a roaring success. So why isn’t it coming back this year? “We decided not to participate, namely because we have some major infrastructure issues,” explained Cappleman’s chief of staff Tressa Feher. She said the lion’s share of the ward’s $1.3 million in discretionary “menu” funds will be spent on rebuilding Sheridan Road in the ward. “Arterial streets are more expensive because of heavy traffic, and it might be necessary to move utility lines.”
But Cappleman isn’t completely turning his back on the PB process. He’s setting aside about ten percent of the menu money to fund murals for the Lake Shore Drive viaducts at Wilson and Lawrence. Community leaders will select at least four designs submitted by artists — the deadline is May 1 – and then residents will get to vote for the final designs in the late spring. Feher added that Cappleman may hold a full PB election in 2015.
Meanwhile, the ward is making progress on last year’s winning proposals. Many of the more conventional projects have been completed. Some of the $448,000 that voters set aside for bike lanes will be used for buffered and protected lanes on Broadway from Montrose to Foster, part of a major complete streets overhaul for the thoroughfare. CDOT hoped to build the lanes last year, but ran out of time before it got too cold to stripe thermoplastic, so they’ll be installed as soon as it gets warm enough. The ward will hold a community meeting to discuss other possible amenities for Broadway, including pedestrian islands, planters, and People Spot mini-parks, this Thursday at 6 p.m. at the former Borders building, 4718 North Broadway.
The Chicago Department of Transportation recently finished a report on SherMon plaza, which Cappleman will share with the community in the near future. “They had to make big changes to the plan dues to traffic patterns and bus turning movements,” Feher said. For example, a proposed neckdown on Sheridan south of Broadway will probably wind up on the cutting room floor.
CDOT is also working on the Leland Greenway. Cappleman held a public meeting on the greenway in November, and staffers did a walk-through of the street with residents, including members of Bike Uptown. The transportation department is currently trying to figure out how to connect the eastern terminus of Leland, near Uplift High, to the lakefront, and are in talks with the school and a nearby hospital. “That’s a tricky one,” Feher said. “CDOT is making sure that the plans are safe.” The alderman will hold another meeting on the greenway once the design proposal is completed.