University-backed lawsuit against dry vote withdrawn

A lawsuit challenging a dry referendum in Hyde Park’s 39th precinct was withdrawn by its proponents out of concern that there would not be enough time for the suit to be completed before the November 4 elections.

By Lokchi Lam

[img id=”76897″ align=”alignleft”] A lawsuit challenging a dry referendum in Hyde Park’s 39th precinct was withdrawn by its proponents out of concern that there would not be enough time for the suit to be completed before the November 4 elections, according to Robert Rosenberg, associate vice president for public affairs at the University.

The suit, filed before by six Hyde Park residents—and supported by the University—would have challenged the validity of a majority of the signatures that were collected to place the referendum on the ballot. If passed, the initiative will ban the retail sale of alcohol in the precinct, a tactic the referendum’s supporters have sought to employ in order to effectively halt the development of two hotels at the site of the Hyde Park Doctors Hospital at 5800 South Stony Island Avenue.

The ballot initiative’s supporters oppose the White Lodging development company’s plans to demolish the existing structure to build the hotels. The University, which bought the property in 2006 for $10 million, has made its plans for the site clear since it purchased the property. Opponents have cited the current building’s historic significance as well as concerns over how the hotels might diminish quality of life in the neighborhood.

The suit, which was withdrawn last week, would have contested the validity of 169 votes out of an original 288, according to the Hyde Park Herald. There are roughly 600 eligible voters in the 39th precinct, with a simple majority needed for the ballot measure to pass.

The referendum’s challengers, who received financial assistance from the University, decided to drop the legal challenge and instead “use their time helping neighbors understand what’s at stake,” Rosenberg said.

At the time of the withdrawal, the suit had not yet been decided by the judge, but a motion from the defendants—including the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners—to dismiss the case had been rejected by the judge last Monday.

The referendum has been criticized as anti-development and its presentation to the community has been characterized as misleading. Its supporters, however, have argued that the petition is a measure of last resort for a neighborhood whose concerns have been neglected by the University. Many suggested they would like to see a hotel built on the site, but on different terms.

“The referendum is the only tool we democratically have because we haven’t had any other access in trying to have [the University and White Lodging] talk about it,” said Karen Rechtshaffen, who lives near the Doctors Hospital.

Hans Morsbach, resident and owner of the Medici, chided the University’s tactics in dealing with the referendum’s supporters.

“I find it offensive that they don’t pay any attention to the residents,” he said. “They’re stonewalling the people who live next door. There should be a hotel there, and I think it would be a better hotel if the University would listen to the people who want to vote it dry.”

Greg Land, one of the backers of the referendum, agreed.

“Our precinct has been abandoned by the University, by the politicians, and by the companies that come in here to build,” Lane said. “We had one option left to keep some respect…. People just lined up to get that petition.”

Robert Greenspoon, a resident, disagreed.

“It’s frightening that a small group of people can go against the wishes of most of Hyde Park,” Greenspoon said. “I’m pretty confident most of Hyde Park wants an environment that would encourage development.”

According to Rosenberg, the University plans to maintain an active role in persuading the neighborhood to keep the precinct wet.

“The University still supports the fight against the referendum,” he said.

He added that the University has organized a number of open houses at residents’ homes, including one last Tuesday which was attended by roughly 30 residents, three University staff, and White Lodging representatives. Several open houses are also planned for next week.