You Can’t Tell The Players Without A Scorecard – Part I


Ever wonder why some elected official votes a certain way for no apparent reason? Let’s consider the current debate over the variances being sought by the developer at Executive Office Plaza (“EOP”), between Touhy and Northwest Hwy. east of Washington.

The developer, Park Ridge 2004 LLC, a limited liability company whose shareholders include Norwood Builders’ Bruce Adreani, former Park Ridge resident and alderman John Chipman, and prominent Schaumburg developers Lance Chody and James Sharpe, wants to put 168 residential units on that site – 8 more than the new Park Ridge zoning ordinance allows.

To win that variance, the developer is including 50 units of what it has labeled “senior housing” – intended to be owned and occupied by people age 55 or older. But by a 5-2 vote on October 15, 2007, the City Council again deferred a decision on that variance, this time because the “senior housing” language in the variance ordinance did not ensure that those units would actually become – and remain – owned and occupied by people 55 and older.

The two votes against deferral came from 4th Ward Ald. James Allegretti and 5th Ward Ald. Robert Ryan. Their votes had residents of both those wards, and especially the 5th Ward residents in the EOP neighborhood who actively opposed the variance, wondering: “What are those two guys thinking?”

We don’t claim to know the minds of either of those aldermen, but certain facts and circumstances might – and we emphasize might – suggest a motive or two.

Take Ald. Allegretti, an attorney who could be expected to demand a locked-down guaranty for the “senior housing” if it actually mattered to him. He explained his “No” vote by saying that he wanted the deal done because it was taking too long, even though the Council didn’t receive the developer’s 168-unit version of EOP until August, after its 176-unit version crashed and burned. Attorney/Ald. Allegretti seemed unfazed by fellow attorney and 1st Ward Ald. Dave Schmidt’s identification of loopholes in the variance ordinance big enough to “drive a condo through.”

For those without a scorecard, Allegretti was the handpicked appointee of Howard Frimark (who reportedly favors the EOP variance) to fill Frimark’s aldermanic seat after he was sworn in as mayor. Allegretti sailed through his City Council confirmation hearing on June 6, 2005, in part because neither he nor Frimark had disclosed that, just three months earlier (March 7, 2005), Allegretti had contributed $300 to Frimark’s campaign fund [PDF] – a fact that was not yet a matter of public record (and, therefore, not discoverable by the aldermen voting on his appointment) because Frimark had not yet filed his report identifying Allegretti’s campaign contribution.

Just a coincidence? Maybe. But on July 13, 2005, little more than a month after his confirmation, Allegretti dropped an additional $200 into Frimark’s coffers. In Chicago, in Cook County, and in many parts of this state, that’s what sometimes passes for “pay to play” – although we suspect that in Chicago it would cost a lot more than $500 for an aldermanic appointment because the job pays around $100,000 instead of the $1,200 Park Ridge aldermen receive.

Allegretti also coincidentally shares office space with Frank DiFranco, the prominent local attorney who is representing Adreani in connection with criminal charges arising from Adreani’s brief encounter with a temporary waitress at the Park Ridge Country Club during the summer. And as a further coincidence, DiFranco (through his law firm DiFranco & Associates) [PDF] and Adreani (personally and through Norwood) [PDF] contributed $2,100 and $500, respectively, to Frimark’s mayoral campaign.

Ryan’s story is somewhat different. He explained his unabashed support for the variance by citing the “dire need” for senior housing in Park Ridge – without providing any documentation of such need, and without explaining why he would support a senior housing plan that could end up providing no senior housing at all. In response to Ald. Schmidt’s loophole complaints, Ryan (who is rumored to have met privately with the developer on the senior-housing alternative) applauded the developer for having made a decent effort to reduce the number of units for which it wants the variance.

Again for those without a scorecard, Ryan is a vice-president of HDR Engineering, a division of an employee-owned architectural, engineering and consulting conglomerate that markets itself to governmental bodies and developers of projects such as EOP – and such as what is currently contemplated for the other Target Areas of Uptown Redevelopment. HDR has already done business with the City on the Summit Mall parking lot project, so Ryan’s voting to help out a developer like Norwood (and EOP investor developers like Adreani, Chody and Sharpe) get this project built would appear to be good marketing for both Ryan and HDR.

Ryan reportedly was encouraged by Frimark to run for alderman against local preservationist and residential density foe Judy Barclay. We can’t tell whether any of Ryan’s campaign contributors might be playing a significant role in his decision-making on EOP, however, because Ryan’s campaign disclosure report [PDF] is curiously heavy on non-itemized contributions: Of the $7,670 in campaign funding he reported, $5,295 of it – almost 70% – is non-itemized, meaning it was donated either in ways that were not identifiable to a particular donor, or by individual donors who did not reach the cumulative legally reportable per-donor minimum of $150.

We haven’t heard any reports that Ryan or his campaign treasurer, local realtor Owen Hayes II, collected all that non-itemized cash by manning “Ryan for Alderman” kettles while dressed in Santa suits. But Ryan did have a fundraiser at “Hay Caramba!” restaurant that could have generated a lot of spare change. And although Hayes apparently did not contribute the $150 minimum needed to become a Ryan itemized contributor, Hayes did contribute $1,250 to the Frimark mayoral campaign [PDF] in 2005. So it seems like Ryan and Frimark share the favor – if not the money – of Mr. Hayes. None of these relationships should be viewed as inescapably untoward or nefarious. But they are the kinds of facts and circumstances that might – and again we emphasize might – contribute to the average citizen’s understanding of why a particular elected or appointed official is taking a particular position on a particular issue.

After all, that’s the principal reason we have these campaign disclosure laws in the first place.[PDF] indicates the link is to a PDF file.

An EOP Riddle


When is “senior housing” not really “senior housing”?  That’s what the Park Ridge City Council hopes to find out in the next two weeks as it refines the language of a proposed ordinance that could permit added residential density for the project known as Executive Office Plaza (“EOP”).

Developer Park Ridge 2004 LLC and its contractor, Norwood Builders (collectively, “Norwood”) is trying to squeeze 168 condominium units onto the EOP site that legally accommodates 160 units under the City’s R-5 zoning classification.  At an estimated average price of $500,000 per unit and a fifteen percent (15%) profit margin, an 8-unit variance could mean $600,000 or more in additional profit to Norwood. 

In order to get those 8 extra units, Norwood has promised to include fifty units of “senior housing.”  This “senior housing,” however, is not the kind offered at places like Summit Square: These “senior housing” units will be pretty much the same as the development’s regular units, except that they will be limited to owners/occupants at least fifty-five years old.  What is supposed to make them “senior housing” is the “senior services” that are being promised by Norwood and elder-care provider Presbyterian Homes.

After questions were raised earlier this month about ensuring that these 50 units would become and remain “senior”-owned/occupied, our City Attorney and Norwood’s attorney came up with an ordinance to address that matter.  But at the Council meeting on October 15, 1st Ward Ald. Dave Schmidt, an attorney, noted that the ordinance as drafted had loopholes “big enough to drive a condo through” – which would excuse at least 10 of these units (and perhaps all 50) from ever becoming “senior housing,” and which could also enable the owners of “senior housing” units to opt out of that designation in as little as 18 months, as 7th Ward Ald. Frank Wsol also noted.

Schmidt and Wsol asked plenty of good questions – about exactly what “senior services” will be provided, which of them will be offered on-site rather than elsewhere, and for what guarantied time period they will be provided.  When no adequate answers were forthcoming from either City Attorney Hill or City Manager Tim Schuenke – and with all of Norwood’s representatives remaining strangely stone-faced and silent in their seats – the Council wisely voted 5-2 (4th Ward Ald. James Allegretti and 5th Ward Ald. Robert Ryan voting against) to defer the variance vote for two more weeks to give the attorneys a chance to clarify and improve the ordinance. 

Having followed the EOP development since its inception, we can’t shake the suspicion that the “senior housing” is little more than an end-game ruse by Norwood to get the variance needed to wring a bit more profit from the EOP site.  Many of the EOP neighbors feel the same way, which is why they are more than a little unhappy with their alderman, Robert Ryan, an unabashed Norwood supporter and apologist. 

But there’s an easy way to prove all the Doubting Thomases wrong: Norwood and Presbyterian Homes can agree to an enforceable, ironclad legal commitment – through a combination of unambiguous ordinance language, restrictive covenants running with the land, and well-drafted contracts – that such housing will from its inception be and remain, without reservation or qualification, strictly limited to “seniors,” and with a guaranty from both Norwood and Presbyterian Homes that an agreed-upon menu of specific on-site “senior services” will be provided by Presbyterian Homes for a minimum of 20 years at “market” prices. 

That would go a long way toward closing those condo-sized loopholes Ald. Schmidt uncovered.

The Old Oakton Bucket


If Oakton Pool were a private business, it would have been shuttered by the Summer of 2005 when its signature feature, the diving well, became inoperable – and two different engineering firms concluded that the entire pool complex is so outdated that it is past the point even of being renovated.

That’s because competent business managers would have realized that running an old, money-losing outdoor community pool for three months a year in a dicey climate like ours is foolish; especially when we already have much more outdoor-pool water than we have people who want to use it.  Savvy managers also would have noted that Oakton has been the worst-attended of our three full-size outdoor pools, which is one reason why it is on target to book another $75,000 operating loss this year. 

That’s $75,000 down the drain, literally and figuratively, to keep a crumbling relic on life support with a “Do Not Resuscitate” order, rather than demolish it and turn that site into green space while a viable plan for a more worthwhile alternative use is developed.

But we don’t have competent business managers at the Park Ridge Recreation and Park District.  We have bureaucrats and politicians for whom a “break-even” program is beyond their grasp, and who regard the term “profits” as so vulgar that they prefer to pander to a small but vocal minority of residents by keeping open a facility that neither the Park District staff nor its Board has any idea how to manage – other than with benign neglect.

So it comes as no surprise that the Park Board, at its October 4th meeting, beat a hasty retreat from its year-old decision to demolish Oakton this December.  What little common sense and resolve the Park Board had demonstrated in this matter was easily routed by approximately 25 residents who shamelessly demanded that Oakton Pool be kept open no matter what it costs the taxpayers.  A final decision is expected at the November 15 Board meeting.

Because the Park District is not a home rule body, it needs to go to referendum to issue the bonds it would need to replace the current Oakton pool complex with another aquatic facility.  In April 2005, however, the voters overwhelmingly rejected (70% to 30%) a new $13 million Oakton aquatic center.  Less than two years later, they handily rejected (57% to 43%) a $9.98 million aquatic center. 

Most of the arguments for keeping Oakton Pool open or rebuilding it, as reported in last week’s local newspapers, came from lap swimmers and Oakton neighbors who see nothing wrong with the taxpayers subsidizing their enjoyment of a conveniently located money-losing 50 meter pool.  The goofiest argument came from Park District Commissioner Terry Majewski, who runs his swimming programs out of Oakton and who – with a remarkably straight face – branded Oakton “a landmark, comparable to the Pickwick Theater.” 

But putting aside such hyperbole, the Park Board and District Staff have totally failed this community in how they have dealt with Oakton Pool.  On one hand, they have failed to display the brains necessary to come up with any ideas for increasing attendance and operating that pool more profitably while they keep it open.  Conversely, they have failed to display the guts needed to make the sound business decision to close the pool and find another use for that site. 

Instead, the Board and Staff appear content to simply sit and watch the red ink flow until the lap pool and wading pool crater like the diving well did in 2005, thereby taking this decision out of their hands.  Kind of makes us wonder whether “Management by Inertia” is a required course at park district school.

Executive Office Plaza Variance Just A Matter Of Greed?


This Monday, October 15, the City Council is expected to vote on whether to give a variance to a group led by Norwood Builders so that it can build 168 units – instead of the 160 units that our newly-revised zoning code permits – on the property known as Executive Office Plaza (EOP), across Northwest Hwy from St. Paul of the Cross.

From what has been said and written so far, the argument for 8 extra units seems to break down into three main points: Park Ridge needs to “evolve” by building more condos; Park Ridge is in “dire need” of the kind of “senior housing” that Norwood is offering; and we need to become friendlier to developers who are “investing” in Park Ridge.

Where does it say that the “evolution” of our community requires building boxes of condos? But if more condo-villes are, indeed, Park Ridge’s future, then we better look at one of the likely consequences of adding hundreds of condos (counting the PRC development) to the Uptown area: Secondary streets like Washington, Western, Belle Plaine, Crescent and Elm “evolving” into heavily-trafficked thoroughfares, as motorists look to avoid the increasingly congested Six-Corners area. Why isn’t anybody talking about that?.

And why is it that we never heard about the great demand for this particular form of “senior housing” – with units only slightly different from the regular units (“senior housing lite?”) – until Norwood suddenly needed an excuse for a zoning variance?  Other than Norwood cheerleader Herb Zuegel and a handful of his friends, how many times in the past decade have citizens appeared at City Hall or written letters to the newspapers demanding more senior housing of any type? And if there truly is so much demand for this kind of senior housing, why is Norwood building only 50 such units?

As for embracing developers who are allegedly “investing” in our community, let’s call a spade a spade. These outsiders are basically carpetbaggers who are “investing” in Park Ridge for only as long as it takes them to get their condos built and sold. Their long-term commitment to our community is virtually zero, unlike resident Guido Neri – who was willing and able to build his residential development in the same neighborhood as EOP, and within the new zoning code’s density limits.

Why is it, then, that four of the City Council’s aldermen are so eager to give Norwood 8 extra units, especially when so many of EOP’s neighbors oppose it?  And why is it that some folks who have lived in Park Ridge for quite awhile are suddenly so dissatisfied with the historically single-family home character of our community that they are lobbying so hard for Norwood to get those extra 8 units?

As 1st Ward Ald. Dave Schmidt so accurately pointed out, Norwood doesn’t need these 8 extra units to go forward with this project and still make a good profit.  So if it’s not a question of need, is it just a question of greed?

Robert J. Trizna