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"The applicant has withdrawn the application," a city official announced at the meeting of the zoning board of appeals last Friday—meaning that a proposal to build a new Cash America pawnshop on a vacant lot at the corner of 79th and Western was dead, at least for the time being.
The standing-room-only audience burst into cheering and applause.
The jubilation even prompted smiles among members of the zoning board, no doubt partly out of relief that the matter was settled before they had to weigh in. "Who says democracy doesn't work?" said board member Sam Toia.
It was no secret what killed the plan: the residents said no. A little attention from an annoying reporter probably didn't hurt either.
As I wrote earlier this month, Cash America and the developers who own the vacant lot hatched a plan to put a pawnshop there—smack in the middle of middle-class communities already concerned about rising crime and struggling business districts. The residents feared the pawnshop would be a blow they couldn't sustain.
The owners and pawnshop company hired insiders to help with the lobbying and legal effort—operatives with long-standing ties to City Hall and the state Democratic Party. Donations were spread around the City Council and state legislature.
Eighteenth Ward alderman Lona Lane came away convinced that her struggles to do something with the lot were finally over—new jobs were on the way.
Four of them.
But the power players forgot to talk to the neighbors—cops, teachers, bus drivers, and other working people who'd poured their savings into their homes and were ready to defend them. In the weeks before the zoning board meeting, more than a thousand residents signed a petition against the pawnshop plan.
The pressure worked. After backing the proposal for months—and then blowing off angry calls from constituents she'd mapped out of the 18th Ward—Alderman Lane finally sat down with a group of pawnshop foes a couple of weeks ago.
According to minutes of the meeting kept by the residents, Lane shared a two-year-old study showing the vacant lot was contaminated from the time a gas station had been there. She said this severely limited the number of businesses interested in the site. But residents demanded to know why she'd never produced the study before and insisted that she heed their concerns about a pawnshop.
The alderman yielded. When the residents handed her a document declaring she wouldn't support the pawnshop, she signed it.
The residents then promised to form a committee to work with the property owners on recruiting different businesses. The alderman said she'd arrange a meeting with city development officials.
It hasn't happened yet, and Alderman Lane was conspicuously absent from the zoning board meeting. Aides said she was on vacation.
No wonder that even after hearing the good news, the residents were wary of being duped.
"Can we have that in writing?" asked Marie Tyse, a retired police officer who'd helped lead the opposition.
Zoning board members explained that the withdrawal of the zoning application was part of the official proceedings and a matter of public record. If the pawnshop plan were to be revived, the property owners would have to start with a new zoning application that would need City Council approval. They'd also have to formally notify the community again.
"They didn't do that the first time!" shouted a woman in the audience.
The residents vowed not to get caught looking. "I'm delighted this happened, but we have to stay focused, because they can bring it back," Tyse said afterward. "We are not giving up."
"I'm not happy the alderman wasn't here," added Tanya White, another opposition leader. "And we still have to get something into that site. This isn't the end—it's just the beginning."