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The Price of Milk in East Village

Alderman Manny Flores is on the hot seat again, this time over a giant Dominick's that would replace Edmar Foods.

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If the First Ward had the usual hack for an alderman, the zoning change that would allow Dominick's to build a big store at Damen and Chicago would have been granted a long time ago. A hack would have simply given the grocery chain what it wanted and let the campaign contributions roll in from all the hotshots who facilitated the deal. And if some of the locals didn't like it, well, who'd care?

But the ward isn't controlled by the usual hack anymore. First-termer Manny Flores ran last year as a reformer, saying he was dedicated to open planning and balanced growth. He was backed by activists who now oppose the Dominick's zoning request. So now he faces another defining moment in his fledgling career--he either stands with his oldest allies or he deserts them. "This is a tough one," he says with a sigh. "No matter what I do someone will be upset."

Dominick's wants to build on the lot at 2019 W. Chicago, about a half block west of Damen, where Edmar Foods has been operating a grocery store since the early 80s. This area of East Village has been at the center of some of the worst overdevelopment the city has seen in the last decade. From 1995 to 2003 the alderman was Jesse Granato, public enemy number one to the local antidevelopment, preservationist crowd. Actually Granato was only following Mayor Daley's general dictate on planning--that any development is good because it builds the tax base. Granato gave Daley what he wanted in the First Ward, routinely approving zoning requests and giving developers free rein to knock down buildings, then squeeze as much housing as they could onto the lots.

So it wasn't surprising that Daley dispatched his top precinct workers to help Granato beat reformer Cynthia Soto when she ran against him in 1999. "The '99 election was crucial, because after that there were many new developments," says Peter Zelchenko, a community activist who wrote a book about the race, It Happened Four Years Ago, and is a leader in the fight to stop the Dominick's. "I think had Soto won she would have at least downzoned the area, put up zoning committees, and let things move gradually."

Maybe. At any rate, by 2003 even East Village's yuppies had had enough of the traffic, congestion, and unsightly construction. Flores, then a young lawyer in the state's attorney's office, rode the backlash, promising a new day in zoning. Backed by Zelchenko and other activists, he ousted Granato, then dusted off many of the reforms Soto had promised. He would hold open public hearings on all zoning requests, and he wouldn't hesitate to turn down developers, even wealthy, well-connected ones, if that was the best thing for the community. "I'm committed to balanced growth," he says.

Flores's closest antidevelopment allies pleaded with him to get tough--freeze all development, downzone the ward. But he's been cautious. Even with all the tacky construction, he knows there would be strong local resistance, particularly from real estate agents, to unilaterally imposed restrictive zoning. And he hasn't wanted to upset Daley. So in his first year in office he learned to dance a nifty tango--doing just enough to please his early allies, but not so much that he pissed off Daley and the real estate interests.

It's a hard dance for any alderman to master, especially a rookie. As Flores eventually learned, most of the city's rules and regulations are prodevelopment. A few months ago he slapped a moratorium on all new construction permits until he could settle on some sort of system that allowed for balanced growth, only to discover that he had no control over demolition--City Hall was undermining his moratorium by continuing to give developers permits to knock down buildings.

The Dominick's issue is also tricky. In May the grocery chain told Flores it wanted to lease the Edmar Foods property--an area bordered roughly by Damen, Hoyne, Chicago, and Lee--as long as it could get a zoning change. The Edmar store stands in the middle of the property, and if Dominick's gets the zoning change it will tear down that building and a few houses to make way for a shopping complex with a grocery store, a Starbucks, a Bank One, and a dry cleaner. The Dominick's would be 48,000 square feet--three times the size of Edmar Foods.

Zoning requests are approved by the City Council, which almost always defers to the local alderman. There was no ducking this one--the fate of the Dominick's proposal was controlled by Flores.

Zelchenko and other activists told Flores that the proposal was a step in the wrong direction. Yes, Edmar is a no-frills store, but its prices are relatively low, particularly for necessary items--at the moment a gallon of milk costs $3.19 at Edmar and $3.89 at Dominick's. "A lot of working-class and poor people shop at Edmar's because it's affordable," says Zelchenko. "If you get rid of Edmar's they lose a place to shop."

The activists also say the proposed design is incompatible with the urban landscape, since this is Chicago, not Schaumburg. They think Dominick's should keep its store small, and if it has to expand it should build up, not out. The last thing the area needs, they say, is another sprawling big-box complex.

Zelchenko, Leah Harp, and other local residents began campaigning against the zoning request, gathering signatures on petitions outside Edmar. "I asked Manny to get behind me on this, and he said, 'Peter, don't make me do this,'" says Zelchenko. "I understand. I sympathize with him. It's a flammable issue. He's facing two difficult political problems--the East Village zoning problem and the Dominick's problem. If he follows the most vocal community caretakers he would be antidevelopment. He would downzone East Village, and he would refuse to change the zoning for Dominick's. It's a scary thing for him."

By June, Zelchenko, Harp, and their allies had collected more than 300 anti-Dominick's signatures. They packed two meetings Flores held in June and July, denouncing the plan as officials from Dominick's listened. But they haven't persuaded him to deny the zoning request.

Flores acknowledges that the prices at Dominick's are generally higher than those at Edmar, and he agrees that it would be nice to have a lower-price store for working-class people. But, he says, "You have to remember that Edmar's is looking to lease to Dominick's in this deal. It's not big bad Dominick's driving the little guy out. It's the little guy wanting to close down their store and make a deal with Dominick's."

According to Flores, the key to the deal is Edmar. If the owners want to get out of the grocery business, who is he to stop them? "This is America," he says, "not the Soviet Union." And if he stops them from leasing to Dominick's they might sell their land to a developer who will clear it for condos and town houses. "If Dominick's doesn't get the zoning, what's next?" he says. "I don't want a situation where we lose a grocery store and then nothing else is put in its place. Right now they can put a ton of condos in there with commercial on the front. Some of the folks are concerned about the gentrification issue. But what happens in the event we lose a grocery store? The gentrification issue could be even worse."

"Manny keeps saying, 'If I don't do this there will be condos,'" says Zelchenko. "I say there's other things besides condos, like keeping Edmar's or getting other stores to go to that site. He could be proactive. If he doesn't want condos he can downzone the land right now--that will keep the condos out."

Zelchenko has talked to the owners of Edmar Foods, Ed Olczyk and Marty Lavelle, and he says they told him they would stay in the business if the Dominick's deal fell through. But Flores says the owners haven't given him any such assurances. (Neither Olczyk nor Lavelle returned calls for comment.)

Edmar Foods is close to four other wards--the 26th, 27th, 32nd, and 2nd. When Zelchenko drew a one-mile radius around the store he discovered that the biggest section was in Alderman Walter Burnett's 27th Ward. So a few weeks ago he, Harp, and Bill Wendt appealed to Burnett. All that got them was a lesson in political protocol.

"It was his ward night--a really busy night, with about 30 people waiting to see him," says Zelchenko. "We waited for about an hour, and then we were ushered in for our meeting with the king. The first thing he said is, 'Whoa, whoa--that's Alderman Flores's ward.' Well, yes, but your constituents are affected. He said, 'You don't understand. I don't step on another alderman's territory--and those aldermen better not step in my territory.'"

At the moment Flores is leaning toward approving the zoning request, saying he believes most residents support it. "Peter is my friend," he says. "He's a great guy, and he has impeccable integrity. But a lot of people want the Dominick's. Are people opposing it? Yes. But if you ask for a breakdown, the overwhelming majority is asking for the Dominick's. Does that mean I shut out the opposition? Absolutely not. That's why we held Dominick's feet to the fire with those two community meetings."

So what's he going to do?

"I'll meet with the [Edmar Foods] owners one last time to see if they would rule out selling the land for condo development," he says.

And then?

"I'm not ready to tell you right now, 'cause I don't know what they're going to tell me. I don't know if they can tell me anything definitive. I'll make my decision in the next few weeks."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.

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