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The jail next door: how not to get a zoning variance

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One day early last month some zoning lawyer sent Evie Camp a letter telling her that the county planned to build a jail across the street from her near-west-side home.

That little letter, written in legalistic gobbledygook, has thrown communities in and around the intersection of Leavitt and Kinzie (where the jail would go) into an uproar, generating fears that residents will be exposed to murderers, rapists, and other hardened criminals.

Such fears, contend the jail's backers, are exaggerated, since the compound would house only 250 pretrial detainees accused of nonviolent crimes, like the possession of marijuana. "I honest to God believe that what we want to do would benefit the neighborhood," says Bernie Curran, president of the Safer Foundation, the not-for-profit organization that would oversee the facility. "Local residents should at least give us a chance."

But few residents are willing to do so, and Curran, as well as Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan, Cook County Board President Richard Phelan, and Alderman Dexter Watson (27th)--have only themselves to blame. If ever there was a textbook case of how not to handle a controversial project, this is it.

"So far, the people who support the jail have managed to scare the hell out of everyone around here," says Camp, who has led local opposition. "Why should we trust any of them?"

The jail is needed to ease overcrowding at the Cook County Jail, which, built for 7,900, now holds about 8,800 prisoners--600 of them without beds. A federal judge ordered the county to reduce the overcrowding or face heavy fines, and Sheahan responded with several proposals, including a separate facility for pretrail detainees accused of nonviolent crimes.

"We are not talking about arsonists, rapists, or murderers," says Curran. "We're talking about breaking and entering, or stealing a car, or writing bad checks or marijuana charges--Mickey Mouse kinds of stuff."

Once incarcerated, the defendants would receive job training and/or drug or alcohol abuse therapy from Safer Foundation counselors. "We run similar sites like this, and they have worked very well," says Curran. "They're clean, well managed, and secure. We want to change the lives of the detainees so they can set positive goals for themselves, whether or not they're found guilty."

After a search, Curran settled on an abandoned warehouse at 400 N. Leavitt. From Curran's perspective, it seemed like an ideal location. Most of the closest properties were warehouses and factories. As for those residents who did live nearby, they'd probably appreciate the presence of Sheahan's deputies--or so Curran figured.

"This is not exactly a low-crime area, and to be honest some of Kinzie Street looks like a dump, there is so much trash," says Curran. "With this facility, we would not only clean up the area but put sheriff's police on the street. And studies show that crime drops with a strong police visibility. Plus, there are side businesses that would go in, like a dry cleaners to clean the detainees' clothes and a restaurant for the visitors."

Sheahan gave his informal approval to the proposal, as did Phelan (or at least his aides) and even Watson. All they needed to build and operate the facility was a land use variance from the city's Zoning Board of Appeals.

Of course, no building proposal is ever easily digested, especially when it's a jail. The standard operating procedure for winning approval for such a controversial project is for the developer to contact the local alderman, who then holds a widely publicized meeting, which in this case would have been attended by Curran, Phelan, and Sheahan (or their emissaries). There they bring on the slide show and trot out their experts to answer each and every question, no matter how hostile.

"In this day and age, developers should know that any mention of a jail is going to scare people," says Maryanne DiNovo, a lifelong resident of the area. "You have to be up-front and let people know you're not trying to sneak something by them."

But no public meeting was held. Instead, the Safer Foundation hired a zoning lawyer named Daniel Houlihan, who, following the minimal requirements of zoning law, wrote the now infamous letter received by Camp and other owners of property within 250 feet of the proposed site.

"Dear Sir or Madam:" Houlihan's letter begins. "Please be advised that, on or about September 1, 1993, the undersigned, as attorney for the applicant, will file an application with the Zoning Board of Appeals of the City of Chicago for approval of a variation in the nature of a special use to allow the location and establishment upon the referenced premises of a correctional facility to serve minimum to low-medium security risk pre-trial detainees of the Cook County Department of Corrections."

In other words, the county was building a jail. "When I read that letter, my first instinct was to cry," says Camp. "I never wanted to live next to a jail."

Moreover, Camp didn't see her neighborhood as Curran, Phelan, and Sheahan apparently did. This was no high-crime industrial wasteland. A few doors away was a colony of artists, as well as older residents who had lived in the same homes for most of their lives. Just up the road were Ukrainian Village and an Italian neighborhood known as the Patch, working-class enclaves filled with schools, churches, bakeries, and restaurants. "This isn't some dumping ground for a jail," says Camp. "This is a neighborhood of nice people who choose to live here."

Camp, a singer, and her husband, Vince Lawrence, a record producer, were converting an abandoned soap factory on Leavitt into a recording studio with a loft apartment. Over the summer she'd spent hours clearing rubble from the nearby alley and landscaping her lawn into an intricately patterned garden.

"I wouldn't have bought this property if I'd known a jail was going up across the street," says Camp. "I don't want to have to worry about the safety of me or my clients. Even if no one escapes from the jail I have to worry about their friends who come to visit. My grandmother has a saying, "Birds of a feather flock together.' Great, so now I'll have a bunch of gangbangers hanging out. Curran says they'll only house low-risk prisoners; but how do I know that they won't mix up some of the prisoners, especially if the main jail remains overcrowded?

"I'm not like someone who buys a house next to the airport and then complains about the flights. They just sprung this on me without warning after I had spent the whole summer cleaning up this property. It's like they're penalizing me for making this an attractive place."

Camp distributed copies of Houlihan's letter throughout the area, and within a few days residents and business leaders were organizing a resistance. On September 22, roughly 300 of them marched to Watson's office, where they angrily demanded to know why Watson or Democratic committeeman Rickey Hendon had not notified them of the proposed jail as soon as they heard about it. Clearly unnerved, and apparently not sure of what to say, Watson, a rookie alderman, at first denied that he'd even known of the proposal, then voiced his opposition to it, while urging residents to lodge their protests with Phelan and Sheahan.

"I told the residents what I had told [Curran] when he came around with the idea for the facility," says Watson. "I said that it doesn't sound like too bad an idea. But if the community has any objections to it, I won't support it."

When residents called Phelan's office, they were met with either confusion or indifference (apparently Phelan has only one aide who understands the issue, and she's unwilling to talk to residents and not allowed to talk to the press). Sheahan's aides were more accommodating. "It's not the sheriff's intention to force anything on the community," says Sally Daly, Sheahan's spokeswoman. "We would like for the Safer Foundation to meet with the residents and work something out."

To his credit, Curran took all the phone calls, no matter how hostile. "I tried to lay out the facts, but some of the people wouldn't listen," says Curran. "Listen, I'm not a politician and I'm not a developer--I'm not used to doing these things. In retrospect, I realize it would have been better to meet with residents before we sent out those zoning notices. But we didn't have a lot of time. We wanted to get this proposal into the pipeline so we could get the facility operating and relieve the overcrowding."

For the moment the residents have the upper hand, since the Zoning Board of Appeals won't likely overrule Watson's opposition. Still, the property owners (including local factory owners) are taking no chances. They've hired their own high-priced zoning lawyer, and vow to press their cause at the board's October 15 hearing.

"Their lawyer will call their experts to say the jail will be wonderful, and our lawyer will call our witnesses to say it won't," says Camp. "It'll probably cost us about $20,000. I don't know if there's anything they could have done to get us to support the jail. But it didn't have to come down to this."

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

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