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Merchants vs. mall: a Mexican standoff in Little Village



The huge Spanish colonial arch at Kedzie that greets visitors driving west along 26th Street should provide a clue. This is not the stereotypical depressed, abandoned shopping strip many people associate with minority neighborhoods in Chicago. Instead, the 26th Street strip from Kedzie to Kostner, which forms the heart of the neighborhood known as Little Village, bustles with furniture, clothing, and small department stores, record shops, restaurants, and bars with large satellite dishes facing southwest to pick up boxing and soccer matches from Mexico. The storefront occupancy rate here would be the envy of almost any chamber of commerce in the city.

Yet 26th Street, while the most prosperous business area in the city's Hispanic communities, faces problems not uncommon to other such strips. Parking remains at a premium throughout the area. Trade drops off considerably after nightfall, as many residents worry about the safety of the area. And now the local merchants face the fear of shopping-strip businessmen anywhere--the threat of a new shopping mall nearby.

Matanky Realty Group, a Chicago developer, has announced plans to develop what it calls Chicago's first Mexican shopping center at the western end of Little Village at 26th and Kostner. "Plaza de Mexico" is scheduled to contain half a million feet of retail stores and professional offices, plus parking for 1,000 to 1,500 cars, brighter lighting than suburban malls, and a security observatory. "We are negotiating with several anchor stores," says Matanky Group president Barry Kreisler. "We are looking for a supermarket-drugstore and department store. Then we will finalize deals with other merchants."

Kreisler predicts Plaza de Mexico will be unique. "Because we want to do two things. First, we want to provide the usual supermarket-drugstore-department-store base of malls. But we also want to create a Mexican shopping mecca, something similar to Chinatown. We want to have, for example, a Mexican restaurant and Mexican foods store, plus shops selling leather goods, pottery, silver, and tin goods--items from Mexico not readily available now." The plaza, according to Kreisler, also would contain office space that could house the Mexican consulate, a Mexican trade bureau, some city outreach office, and a cultural center. Kreisler says he is open to other suggestions from the community. "Several groups have talked about some sort of theater, or at least a place where plays can be performed."

Local merchants, not surprisingly, have come out strongly against the proposed mall. "You can say that 98 percent of the 26th Street businessmen oppose the idea," says Omar Lopez, a onetime 26th Ward aldermanic candidate who now heads an ad hoc group titled the Comite Pro-Defensa la Villita (Committee for the Defense of Little Village). "We feel this is economic invasion, not economic development. We feel there are more pressing problems that the alderman and businessmen can work on--housing, education, and health, for example. The healthiest segment of the Little Village community is the business segment. Why tamper with it? A large mall would force businesses here to close. Then you'd have empty stores down the line. If you don't have a healthy business strip, the community begins to suffer."

The committee leaves no doubt as to whom it considers opponents. A leaflet circulated among Little Village merchants included statements about "Matanky, Garcia, Villarreal (Maximiliano, Miramon, Mejia)"--comparing developer Matanky, 22nd Ward Alderman Jesus Garcia, and Little Village Chamber of Commerce president Anita Villarreal with former Mexican emperor Maximilian and two of his leading generals. It described them as "three villains who wish to destroy a community."

Villarreal was one of the few local business figures who didn't speak out against the mall. A group of antimall businessmen met on February 8 and voted to dismiss her, for allegedly moving to keep the mall project a secret and for using the chamber of commerce as her "private club." Villarreal denied the charges and claimed only the board of directors could fire her. She called a special board meeting for February 15. The board voted 10 to 7 to retain her.

However, anti-Villarreal merchants maintained that they had dismissed her. They also claimed that the February 15 meeting was illegal because Villarreal removed several members from the chamber's board and added others without the board's approval. They then called another board meeting on February 22, at which Villarreal was accused of, among other things, "changing board members without notice, calling meetings without notice, putting up board members for review, even though they were paid and good members in full standing." At this meeting, which Villarreal did not attend, the board members unanimously voted to remove Villarreal as a member.

But Villarreal says 21 of the people who voted to remove her at that meeting were never members of the chamber and had never been voted in by the chamber. She says a number of them were leaders of the original group who dismissed her as president. Moreover, she says, they had no authority to call a board meeting. "For the board members to call a meeting, they would have to go to me. But I was out of town on the 22nd on personal business. Since I wasn't there, they would have to go to my secretary and request a meeting. They didn't do that. They just went ahead with an illegal meeting."

She defends not having taken a public stand against the mall. "They wanted me to say the chamber was against the mall. But I can't do that without approval of the board of directors. I called the board, and they gave me a vote of confidence and asked me to make a study of the shopping-mall proposal."

In answer to charges that she arbitrarily removed board members, Villarreal claims that members had come to her and announced that they intended to resign. Later they came back and tried to reclaim their board positions at the urging of antimall activists. "I never got their resignations in writing. I guess I made a mistake there," she concedes.

Villarreal charges that the antimall activists' opposition to her has disrupted community activities that have nothing to do with the business debate. She claims that her opponents on the chamber changed the locks on the chamber building, even though that building is owned by the Little Village Community Council, an organization Villarreal also serves as president. "The Boy Scouts were scheduled to meet there last Saturday, but they couldn't because the locks had been changed. Isn't that ridiculous? The community council has been working on the upcoming census. What could be more important to the community than that?"

To no one's surprise, the matter is headed for court. Villarreal said that she has gotten an injunction against her removal as chamber president, including a ban on changing locks at the building occupied by the chamber. Funds for the chamber also have been frozen.

Whatever the result of the chamber of commerce battle, the ultimate fate of the Plaza de Mexico may lie with the man caught in the middle of the conflict, Jesus Garcia. He claims he would not make any move to hurt existing businesses. "Obviously, I would hope any kind of development would be complementary." Yet he also says, "The mall offers a professional building, day care, a community center, and jobs. It would bring in businesses not already here. It would bring people that are not now shopping here, and that means additional sales-tax income. Commercial tenants could sell goods not readily available along 26th Street. The design of the center itself could be an attraction. And from the consumer point of view, it would be better to have people shopping in a mall here than in Evergreen Park or North Riverside."

Garcia, whose recommendation on zoning changes for the area could make or break the project, so far has declined to give an official position. He says he is waiting for the results of studies by the city's Department of Economic Development and Department of Planning, an impact study prepared by the University of Illinois at Chicago, and two community meetings.

The alderman has said he would take community wishes into account. And according to results of a poll he commissioned, the community speaks strongly in favor of the mall. Of those questioned, 1,927 (94.5 percent) favored it, 112 opposed it, and only 3 had no opinion.

Merchants denounced the poll in no uncertain terms, claiming its results are questionable because Garcia precinct captains were among those doing the polling. "What Garcia is calling a scientific poll is a crude joke to the community," says Francisco Contreras, the press secretary for the Comite Pro-Defensa la Villita. "Garcia thinks he is dealing with mentally retarded people. He forgets that in our community there are professionals who have cited concrete cases of why the shopping center is nefarious to the community."

Omar Lopez says, "We had a feeling Garcia was going to pull some trick like that--take a poll and claim widespread approval. We have a committee collecting signatures, with more than 2,000 people already coming out against the mall."

The battle over the shopping mall may be just part of a larger struggle for control in the community, according to the publisher of a local newspaper. "Control of the chamber of commerce is important because the chamber runs the annual Mexican Independence Day parade, a big money-maker. And I think Lopez is trying to do something to start his own aldermanic campaign. One of his requests for the comite is a button-making machine, to promote solidarity against the mall. You can also use one of those machines to make 'Omar Lopez for Alderman' buttons." Lopez denies that he now has such political ambitions.

For now, Garcia seems unperturbed by the opposition of the 26th Street businessmen, many of whom have opposed him unsuccessfully in five elections since 1984. "The businessmen on 26th Street have never exactly been on the cutting edge for me anyway," he says. "They said basically that because I didn't come out against the shopping center, they won't support me. If they don't want to support me, that's their right."

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

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