Editor’s note: This article has been changed to include a statement from the alderman’s office and support for the project from Logan Square Chamber of Commerce.
More than 200 people attended the Nov. 16 community zoning meeting hosted by Alderman Felix Cardona (31st Ward) to discuss the proposed music venue and restaurant that has become the newest flashpoint for the gentrification debate in the area.
The meeting—at times tense as the crowd fired questions and heckled the developers—was filled with residents and community members wanting to make sure their voices were heard, the feeling more or less split on the issue. According to the alderman’s office, a complete community vote is still not in. Voting continues this week and it does not have exact voting numbers leaning one way or the other.
As of now, Cardona is not leaning one way or the other about the development; he held the meeting to get a sense of where the community stands and hear different sides, he said. In order for the development to move forward, the alderman needs to file a zoning change.
“I’m here to listen to the community,” Cardona said as he began the meeting.
He sponsored a straw poll from anyone at the meeting who lived within the immediate area affected by this proposed change. He stressed his commitment to transparency, saying for “far too long in the past” zoning meetings such as this did not occur in Chicago.
Cardona introduced James Rudyk, a faculty member at DePaul University and a nonprofit professional based in the area, to be the moderator for the event. Rudyk called the meeting a “great example of democracy in action.”
Developers Mark Felinga, Scott Miles and Evan Meister of VentureMark, Inc. then presented their project and Miles began by asking the crowd to reminisce on the first concert they attended.
“[This project is] about love and working together and talking together,” Miles said.
Miles said the team worked to purchase the building (2537 N. Pulaski Rd.) in December 2018. They met with Cardona shortly after being sworn in, and Cardona asked them to meet with board members of community organizations. They ended up having about 15 meetings in total, Miles said.
Photos: Paulina Fadrowska
He was quick to stress that the building, a former marble manufacturing plant, has been vacant for 11 years, which “astounded” him.
Mark Falanga, CEO of VentureMark, shared his professional background in corporate real estate and his experience working with the Kennedy family at the Merchandise Mart and with now-Governor JB Pritzker in hosting events at non-profit tech startup 1871. Evan Meister, vice president of property development at the company who has had a career in finance, handles the “non-property” aspects of this development.
Miles did most of the talking for the developers, saying their objective is to open an 800 to 1000-person capacity room for the music venue. He mentioned that venues at this capacity are not currently concentrated in this part of the city; the neighborhood is home to smaller bars and family restaurants.
The name of the venue would be Present Company, focused on “bringing people together” in a positive way through music and the arts, with the music hall aspect being the first project. Miles said they hope to host 80 to 120 shows a year and bring in a variety of musical acts, including Latinx artists to cater to the community.
The second aspect would be a learning and arts hub that features after-school programming for music and the arts. The third function of the space would be for events, particularly for Quinceañeras, weddings, farmers markets and more.
Additionally, Miles stressed that the space would give jobs to the community in both salaried and hourly roles, with beginning wages at $15 an hour. Throughout speaking though, some members of the crowd continuously interrupted the developers, often in a heckling manner, which upset others trying to listen and created tension between the crowd and the developers. Lots of people yelled for a Spanish translation of the presentation, but there was a translator present.
Some people in the crowd shouted, “We know this will make you a lot of money,” and “What about gentrification and displacement?” to which the developers said they could ask during the open questions forum at the end.
He went on, addressing gentrification through the lens of local employment benefits, saying that the space will create about 150 jobs and that local security consultants will be tapped to work the space. He was quick to note that this project will all be funded privately, without TIF money or any public subsidy. He mentioned that he will create a land trust with the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, donating 25 cents of every ticket sold to be invested into the community to combat any area gentrification.
Matt Rucins, co-founder of Lincoln Hall, was brought on the team to produce events at Present Company. A talent promoter with experience promoting hundreds of events, particularly at Lincoln Hall, he said he sees the new development as a great opportunity, despite initially being skeptical.
“[I am] having my mind blown,” Rucins said after seeing the space.
Falanga noted nearby Metra and public transportation stops that would make Present Company an accessible destination. He spoke about how sound systems will be strategically placed to control bass rumble from bothering nearby residents. He then addressed structural changes that would occur in the space, mentioning the removal of mezzanines and where multi-layered VIP areas would be located.
He said the team wants to keep the “gritty, industrial look” of the building. Also in the plan is to have a pizza restaurant and similar food that can accommodate about 70 people in the south part of the building. Present Company hopes to promote a next-door restaurant as an option to help local businesses as well.
Miles stressed that Present Company is not a nightclub. It is a music venue that would have service from 5 .p.m to midnight and should take 45 minutes to empty out after a show.
Once the developers delivered their proposal, which went overtime by 25 minutes, it was the community’s turn to weigh in on the project and its effect on the neighborhood.
“I believe families are more important” than the profits for wealthy developers, said a 17-year-old member of LSNA who lives in the area. “Logan Square has suffered tremendous loss and change since 2000.”
He said he and his colleagues have collected the signature of 150 local residents who oppose the zoning change. Members of LSNA also hosted a protest Nov. 13 to stand up to the proposed venue and encourage residents to vote “no” at the Nov. 16 meeting.
The next speaker was a 17-year-old student, who argued that Hermosa is beautiful just as it is.
“Leave our community alone. Don’t displace us. It’s just not fair,” he said.
Rupert Medina, of the Hermosa Neighborhood Association, said this development project “has to address many concerns” of those in the community.
“Once the project is done, who will hold [the developers] accountable to the commitments they made to the community? We need to have something in place to hold people accountable,” Medina said. “We’re going to shut your place down if you don’t meet the needs of the community.”
Jessica Wobbekind, executive director for the Logan Square Chamber of Commerce, sent a letter on behalf of the Board of Directors to Alderman Cardona in favor of the zoning change saying the chamber supports the project.
“This project will move the neighborhood forward in a unique manner in keeping with the character of the community while celebrating the history of the industrial corridor,” the Chamber wrote.
The Chamber believes the project will bring more foot traffic, increasing pedestrian safety and encouraging more economic development in the area. They also wrote in the letter that the adaptive reuse of a building that has sat vacant for over a decade will produce approximately 150 jobs at a living wage, both full- and part-time. They also support it because the developer promised a percentage of ticket sales to a community land trust to reduce the effects of rising property values and the risk of displacement.
Ezekiel “Zeke” Torres, a community member who took notes on the meeting, wrote that Cardona mentioned it was impossible to make a decision on the day of the meeting. Torres stresses his independence on the project proposal and his independence from the office of Cardona while mentioning that he is pleased Cardona is listening to the community. He expressed his desire to see projects committed to the Latino community in the area. He wanted to see young protestors focus on getting job training and internships rather than shutting down projects at the last minute when “it’s too late.”
According to a Nov. 19 poll on NextDoor by neighbors in close proximity to the building, 77 percent approve the project and only 16 percent oppose it out of 89 votes.
Support for the project was also expressed at the meeting. Voting continues this week, and you can make your voice heard by contacting Alderman Cardona at (773) 824-2000 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured photo: Paulina Fadrowska