In the election rush last week, I fell behind on reading the free local, ethnic papers that I usually pick up every week from stores along Devon Avenue. I finally got around to picking them up on Thursday, and to my surprise, found that I had apparently missed a big story on Devon Avenue—perhaps the biggest it’s seen in years. “Alderman Stone opens major parking complex on Devon Avenue,” touts the India Tribune. Another local publication, hi India, plastered a photo on the cover of its Feb. 18th issue of Stone cutting a red ribbon in front of the garage, flanked by the project’s developer, Mohammad Tariq Siddiqui.
To understand why this is such a big deal, you have to rewind several years. Devon Avenue shoppers used to have a choice of several city-owned, metered lots when they patronized businesses along the street. But by 2006, Chicago had sold those properties to private developers. This particular lot, at Rockwell and Devon, was among them. In 2005 Siddiqui was awarded a contract that came with millions of dollars in tax increment financing. His design for the six-story complex would include retail space on the ground floor, condos above, and more than 230 parking spots.
That was more than six years ago. In the meantime, Devon Avenue merchants have complained the parking situation has only worsened. They lost the city-owned lots, they’ve seen parking meter rates increase, they feel that ticket enforcement is more aggressive than elsewhere in the city, and they’ve watched the city restrict parking on more and more side streets to local residents only. Few merchants were happy to see the city sell the lot at Rockwell and Devon, but now they’re just impatient to have it finished. “Once they open, it will be no problem,” said one business owner, who, like others, believes easier parking can help redress some of the difficulties brought on by the economic downturn.
But here’s the thing: the day I saw the headlines announcing the garage’s opening, it was actually closed. In fact, the part of Rockwell Avenue that drivers have to turn onto to enter the complex was blocked off with a “Do Not Enter” sign. I went back a few days later to find that sign was gone, but I went inside the garage to take a gander, and the gate arms were up. There were a couple of cars in there, but construction materials still lay about. A bobcat machine blocked the exit. As I wandered out, I ran into Siddiqui, who confirmed that, despite the announcement to the contrary, the garage wasn’t actually open and it might not be for a couple of weeks. So what was that hoopla about, a week before the election? “It was just a ribbon-cutting,” said Siddiqui.
Greg Brewer has a different take. “They did the same thing four years ago,” said Brewer, who just came off a second unsuccessful bid to unseat 50th Ward Ald. Bernard Stone. “They had the big groundbreaking about two weeks before election, and then it just sat there.” Brewer headed a lawsuit against Siddiqui in 2007, in which residents claimed the development violated local building covenants. The suit failed in court, and Stone blames it for delaying the project. Brewer dismisses that claim, saying that the group only sought an injunction for a couple of months.
Brewer isn’t the only one that thinks the ribbon-cutting was just a politically-motivated charade. A business owner on Devon, who asked to remain nameless for fear of reprisals by city inspectors, sounded jaded when he talked about the whole thing. “The alderman, he wanted to show it,” the business owner said. “Before the election, he wanted to show it.” Stone tallied 38 percent of last Tuesday’s vote, putting him in a runoff with challenger Debra Silverstein. Silverstein garnered 33 percent of the vote.
Stone and Siddiqui both deny shenanigans. “It has nothing to do with the election,” said Stone. “I didn't set the ribbon cutting, the owner set the thing.” Siddiqui says he set the time for the ribbon-cutting months ago, but that last month’s blizzard kept the project from completion. “The weather has created all kinds of time drama,” said Siddiqui. “This was planned because all the people that were willing to come (to the ribbon-cutting), they could come that day.” So… keep your eyes open? Parking may (or may not) soon come to Devon.