Sign of the Times | Essay | Chicago Reader

Sign of the Times 

A battle over banners in the South Loop reveals a thing or two about Second Ward politics.

For the past several months South Loop resident Peter Ziv has made a pest of himself, criticizing city officials for ignoring their own plans and allowing a developer to build a 34-story high-rise at the northwest corner of Polk and Clark. Last month the planning department shut down Ziv's attempt to hang four large protest signs on the side of his building. "It doesn't get any pettier," Ziv says. "They killed this sign because they didn't want the community telling them what to do." Now the dispute is threatening to have repercussions on politics in the Second Ward.

In September, when I last wrote about the development deal, planning officials and Second Ward alderman Madeline Haithcock said there was nothing they could do to make Terrapin Properties alter its plans for Burnham Pointe, which was to have 298 units and a 300-spot parking garage. Ziv and his allies, most of whom lived in the building just west of the site, wanted Terrapin to move its building to the north so it wouldn't block their view. At the very least they wanted the city to force Terrapin to change the plans for its parking garage: while the city's Near South Community Plan, drawn up by the planning department in 2003, calls for "enhancing" Polk as the "primary east-west pedestrian route" from State Street to the river, under Terrapin's proposal pedestrians would have to weave between cars entering and exiting the parking garage on Polk. Residents wanted the garage's entrance moved to Clark. Terrapin officials dismissed them as bellyachers exaggerating the potential traffic problems because the high-rise will destroy their view.

Instead of retreating, Ziv and his neighbors have kept up the pressure, picketing Terrapin's sales trailer on the site almost every weekend. In January they decided to affix the four signs to the side of their building, denouncing Terrapin and calling on South Loop voters to join in by calling Haithcock at her ward office, even going so far as to give the phone number.

"We wanted to stretch our message across several soft vinyl signs that we planned to screw into the side with rivets," says Ziv. "The signs weighed less than three pounds. They would face the east and hang over an alley."

For several months the city bounced Ziv back and forth between the zoning and planning departments as he sought a temporary-sign permit. He wound up filling out 13 different applications and paying some $1,000 in fees before getting turned down. (The city returned his fees.) "I went to zoning, I went to planning. I went to the desk in planning that specializes in sign permits--yes, there is such a desk," he says. "You can't believe how cumbersome this has been. I was told it went all the way up to [planning commissioner] Lori Healey's desk. On April 7 a planning official told me it was killed. I asked why. She said it wasn't approved by code. I asked, 'What's the code?' She said, 'It's not written down.' I said, 'If it's not written down, how is it code?' She said, 'You find it,' then hung up the phone. That was their official explanation to me."

Planning department spokeswoman Connie Buscemi says the department denied Ziv's application because his banner violated city ordinances. "It has nothing to do with the sign's content--its content is absolutely irrelevant," Buscemi says. "It violated sections 17-12-0804-B and 17-12-0804-D of the municipal code."

The first provision she cites prohibits the installation of temporary signs on street frontage. "But that doesn't apply to our sign, because it was going over an alley," Ziv argues. The second provision limits the number of banners on a multiunit building to three. "I would have consolidated it to one sign if they had asked me," says Ziv. "They never asked me. They never told me what I had to do to get my sign approved, and they never gave me any reason for denying it except 'We're not going to approve it.'"

Aldermanic aides I talked to chuckled at the city's explanation. The city has hundreds of rules on the books, and it can overlook or enforce them selectively, as it sees fit. In this case, I'm told, Ziv probably would have gotten away with his signs had they not mentioned Haithcock and listed her phone number.

Ziv remains undeterred, and he's formed an unlikely coalition with some low-income housing activists that could cause trouble for Haithcock in next February's aldermanic election. Terrapin's development site is close to the downtown headquarters of ACORN, the community advocacy group. Gentrification--especially large-scale developments like Burnham Pointe--has forced up property taxes and housing costs, pushing the poor and working class out of the South Loop. ACORN activists want the city to require developers like Terrapin to set aside a portion of their units as affordable housing.

"I saw [Ziv's] protests and said, 'You look like you need some help,'" says Susan Ritacca, an ACORN organizer. "Balanced development is our issue. But there could be some common ground."

Caught in the middle is Haithcock, who like Terrapin officials didn't return my calls. Historically the Second Ward--the bastion of former congressman William Dawson's political empire--was a rectangular-shaped ward that stretched from the Loop to Bronzeville. But as upscale whites began replacing poor and working-class blacks on the near south side, the city council changed the Second Ward's boundaries to protect Haithcock's seat. It now resembles a contraption made of Tinkertoys, zigzagging from 31st Street to Jackson, then west through the Loop all the way to Sacramento, incorporating black precincts that used to be in west-side wards. Haithcock's recent unsuccessful efforts to post an honorary sign for former Black Panther leader Fred Hampton may have been a vain attempt to rally what's left of her black constituency on the west side as she faces a revolt from upscale white property owners like Ziv and his neighbors.

"Ironically, Haithcock may be developing herself out of a job," says Ziv. "I hope she pressures the developer to change the plans, if only to save her seat."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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