A last resort

Since the University has not bothered to listen to residents’ concerns about the hotel, the only option was the referendum to ban alcohol sale.

By Luke Carman

The dry referendum in the 39th precinct of the 5th ward of Chicago in Hyde Park has gained much publicity as Election Day draws near. Many, including the Maroon Editorial Board (“Drs. No,” 10/21/08), have argued that the referendum is unnecessarily harsh, and will discourage community development. In fact, the referendum is a last resort for neighbors who have so far had their concerns about the ill planned hotel project ignored.

Suggesting that those community members lost in a fair discussion with University and White Lodging proponents is ludicrous. Hotel development was tabled in 2007 by Alderman Leslie Hairston after vocal dissent against the project in community meetings. There was no formal bidding process for the development contract, and it remains unclear why the alderman and the University would bring White Lodging back as developer this year. And, when I spoke with Susan Campbell, the associate vice president for student and civic affairs, she admitted that in spite of the controversy over White Lodging, the University has made no attempt to switch developers, not even attempting to contact other hotel vendors.

White Lodging has offered no concrete solutions for any of the problems that were raised in 2007. Residents are open and excited about the prospect of hotel development in Hyde Park, but concerned about White Lodging’s ability to carry out that development. Self-admittedly, the developer has never built a hotel in a residential neighborhood, and the concerns over residents’ local issues are new ones for the company.

In community meetings, precinct residents raised the following issues: congestion, the economic success of the hotel, standards of labor, preservation of the building, and architectural appropriateness. The University and White Lodging uniformly ignored these concerns. Parking studies were promised for a meeting in September that was never held; preservation suggestions to incorporate the existing structure were dismissed. Most notably, White Lodging publicly agreed to a meeting with representatives from Unite Here, the hotel workers’ union, only to renege on that agreement multiple times, once just five minutes before the meeting was supposed to begin. Calls for cooperative action were ignored, with White Lodging and the University dictating all the terms of discussion and action.

Moreover, White Lodging’s labor record is abysmal. It is anti-union, has kept workers’ wages far below the city average, and is facing charges of religious discrimination, following demands from company officials that female Muslim workers remove their hijabs before beginning work. In order to have their voices heard, a broad swath of residents in the precinct developed the petition for a referendum that would ban the sale of liquor licenses. The hotel won’t build without a liquor license, so voting the precinct dry would effectively stop White Lodging’s development. The referendum was initiated so that the hotel company and its University backers would be brought to the table to handle residents’ concerns when faced with the possibility of shutting down White Lodging’s badly laid plans in November. Unite Here and the preservationists both provided support, but this is ultimately a local, neighborhood referendum.

Luke Carman is a fourth-year in the College majoring in sociology. He worked through Unite Here to circulate a petition to put a referendum on the ballot to prohibit the sale of alcohol in the 39th precinct.

It’s important to remember that in order for the referendum to even get on the ballot, it required signatures from a quarter of the precinct’s registered voters (about 150); 281 signatures were submitted to the Board of Elections. Keeping in mind that many of these registered voters are students in Breckinridge and Stony Island dorms (which were closed for the summer), we collected signatures from more than half of present, registered voters. The ridiculous legal challenge to these signatures, including the subpoenaing of all 10 circulators and their notaries, was withdrawn when those contesting the signatures found no trace of wrongdoing in their submission.

No one objects to the building of a hotel in Hyde Park, a resource the neighborhood requires, but many residents do object to the manner in which this development had been foisted upon residents without allowing their participation in the process. The concerns were not “anti-hotel”—as the Maroon Editorial Board put it—but anti–this hotel. The petition for a referendum was submitted with the intent to show that the community would use its legal voice if all other avenues of action were ignored. As those other options disappeared, residents of the 39th precinct were left with the referendum as their best hope for input into the building of a hotel that will be going up in their backyards.

The community’s efforts to encourage good hotel development have been ignored by the University and White Lodging developers. Serious concerns have received lip service. While the University certainly can develop on their property, they also purport to be responsible neighbors in the wider Hyde Park community. And in the end, the need for development does not give the University permission to railroad through a badly managed project. A “yes” vote on the referendum is a legal way for the community to make itself heard.