Bar owner who posted racist comments is leading fight against affordable TOD

A guerrilla banner for the "Save Lincoln Square" website hund at Lawrence/Leland last weekend. Photo: Twitter user @chi_numtot
A guerrilla banner for the "Save Lincoln Square" website hund at Lawrence/Leland last weekend. Photo: Twitter user @chi_numtot

Maybe I went a little overboard on the snark in last week’s article about opposition to redeveloping the city-owned parking lots at the northeast corner of Leland and Western avenues in Lincoln Square into affordable housing, with a reference to “parking Karens” in the headline. In fairness there are some legitimate reasons residents might be worried about the lot being occupied by a new building, although it shouldn’t be hard to address those concerns. But there’s also a disturbing undercurrent of bigotry to some of the pushback, which I’ll discuss further below.

Nonprofit developer The Community Builders currently has an informal proposal for a 51-unit, five-story, mixed-income development with studios and one-bedroom apartments affordable to households making $60,000; two-bedrooms affordable to households earning $75,000; and apartments specifically intended for artists. The plan also calls for ground-floor restaurant or retail space with a large outdoor seating area along Leland. Since the location is right across the street from the Western Brown Line station and served by three CTA bus lines, and a short walk from plentiful job, education, and recreational opportunities, it’s an ideal location for equitable transit-oriented development.

The developer’s previous proposal, which wasn’t awarded Low Income Tax Credits by the city, called for virtually all of the surface lot parking spots to be replaced with garage parking. However, many residents are still worried about the impact of eliminating the parking lot on local businesses and several street festivals that use the space. For example, the board of the nearby DANK Haus German cultural center, one of the last remaining ties to the era when the neighborhood was predominantly German-American, sent an email to its supporters asking them to “Save Our Parking.”

There are many options for addressing parking and events needs. As it stands, much of the area near the lot is covered with surface parking (although the Fifth Third Bank site at the northwest corner of Lawrence and Western avenues may be redeveloped.) It’s possible that arrangements could be made for DANK Haus to use one or more of these lots for everyday and special events parking.

Much of the land near the Leland/Western lot (red pin) is occupied by parking lots. Image: Google Maps
Much of the land near the Leland/Western lot (red pin) is occupied by parking lots. Image: Google Maps

As a last resort, TCB could be required to retain the current number of public parking spots in the new garage, in addition to the quantity of spots deemed necessary for residents. However, that latter number could easily be zero, since the site has such great transit and retail access.

As for street festivals, the Old Town School of Folk Music’s vibrant annual Square Roots Festival proves that Lincoln Avenue can be successfully pedestrianized for special events. And the other parking lot kitty-corner from the Leland/Western lot at the southwest corner of Leland/Lincoln, which houses the Lincoln Square Farmers Market, will still be available for fests. In short, if residents and merchants want to argue in good faith that there are parking and special events issues raised by redeveloping the lot in question, those problems can be solved.

The Square Roots Festival on Lincoln Avenue. Photo via Chicago Food Magazine
The Square Roots Festival on pedestrianized Lincoln Avenue. Photo via Chicago Food Magazine

But the reason I turned up the sarcasm to eleven in my previous post is the rather underhanded, alarmist way that some opponents are attacking the project. Take the anonymous fliers that have been circulated around the neighborhood, which share much of the same rhetoric and imagery, and even a similar font, with a recent op-ed in the local Inside Booster newspaper attacking local alderman Matt Martin, who supports redeveloping the lot, although he hasn’t endorsed the new TCB proposal. The newspaper’s editor Ronald Roenigk told me the paper wasn’t directly involved with making and distributing the fliers, although he said he knows who is.

The opponents have also launched a fairly professional-looking anonymous website. And on Sunday I got a heads-up that someone had illegally hung a banner with the URL from at least one of the Lincoln Square gateway arches at Lawrence and Western avenues. But by the time I arrived on the scene with a ladder and hook after tweeting a heads-up to the local authorities, ready to pull the banner down myself if necessary, it had already been removed.

In March Maureen Sullivan, a landlord and owner of the local karaoke bar Spyner’s Pub, located on Western just south of the ‘L’ station, launched a petition against developing the lot, which has garnered more than 3,260 signatures. Some of the comments on the petition include pretty standard Not In My Back Yard talking points, arguing that affordable housing, which helps address residential segregation, would be better suited elsewhere. “There is a lot of open space near the Addison or Montrose/Irving [Brown Line] stations,” said signee Mary Jo Shaver, for example. “Build housing at those locations.”

However, one of the comments struck me as something of a racist, xenophobic dog-whistle. Signee Elizabeth Strause railed against Alderman Martin, a biracial Black man who’s originally from Arizona, calling him a “transplant… who [wants] to take every last bit of ethnic Chicago [i.e. Lincoln Square’s German heritage] out of OUR city. He isn’t from here and doesn’t understand real Chicagoans or our culture. He needs to go [back to] where he came from.” Strause added, “Chicago neighborhoods are not… in his bloodline. I’m a third generation NATIVE Chicagoan.”

Spyner's Pub. Image: Google Maps
Spyner’s Pub. Image: Google Maps

I was also troubled to learn today via a Streetsblog reader that petition creator Maureen Sullivan came under fire last year, including a planned boycott of her bar, after posting racist comments on Facebook. According to a Block Club Chicago report by Alex V. Hernandez, Sullivan argued that peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters “were primarily of all other races except for black. The blacks dominated the looting and destruction of our streets” and that BLM protesters “should only be allowed in zoos because they act like animals.”

“Black lives matter annoys the s— out of me,” Sullivan added. “Everything and EVERYONE including animals, plants and the entire environment matters. This entire cause sickens me and they can all f— off.”

Screenshot of Maureen Sullivan's Facebook post, via Block Club Chicago.
Screenshot of Maureen Sullivan’s Facebook post, via Block Club Chicago.

In the wake of the outcry, Sullivan deleted the comment and apologized. “F— your apology,” one commenter replied on Facebook. “You only saying this because you got CAUGHT.” Read more details on this incident in the Block Club Chicago article.

In a comment on her petition, Sullivan wrote, “Alderman Martin’s [and neighboring alderman Andre] Vasquez’s only objective is too take over that lot and hand it over to a developer for $1.00… Both alderman should hang their heads in shame.”

In reality, the person who should hang their head in shame is Sullivan, who previously made blatantly racist remarks, and is now fighting against new housing that would make living in the gentrifying neighborhood more affordable, including for Chicagoans of color.