JEFFERSON PARK — The question of whether the 45th Ward should remain a suburban-like haven or allow denser developments near transit hubs and business districts took center stage Wednesday night at the first debate in the 45th Ward aldermanic race.
Nearly half of the questions posed by moderator Ben Joravsky of the Chicago Reader asked the candidates — Ald. John Arena (45th), Michelle Baert, Michael Diaz and Chicago Police Lt. John Garrido — how they would handle developments criticized by some as too dense, too big, too tall and fundamentally incompatible with the existing community of mostly single-family homes.
All but Arena said they would defer to the wishes of the surrounding residents and block projects they opposed, including a proposal to transform a former concrete company storage facility across the street from the Jefferson Park Transit Center into a 48-unit apartment complex along with plans for a "high-end" liquor store in Gladstone Park.
Heather Cherone breaks down the debate:
Michael Diaz, who works as an attorney for the state in the department that regulates banks, said it was not a hard question.
"If residents who are going to be impacted don't want it, it's not going to happen," Diaz said.
Garrido, who lost to Arena in 2011 by 30 votes in a bitter campaign that prompted Garrido to file a defamation suit against the alderman that was dismissed earlier this month, said he signed an agreement vowing to oppose the project near the transit center.
"This isn't Bucktown," Garrido said. "Density isn't always the answer."
Baert, who publishes a website and Facebook page filled with listings for family friendly activities as the 45th Ward Mom, said the process to approve new developments should be more transparent.
"By the time these meetings are held, it seems like a done deal," Baert said, prompting Arena to interrupt and sparking an angry exchange about the rules.
Arena said his opponents would return the 45th Ward, which includes Jefferson Park, Old Irving Park and parts of Portage Park, Gladstone Park and Forest Glen, to an era where there was little or no economic activity.
"We will put ourselves in a box," Arena said. "The economy will stall and businesses will close."
Several times Joravsky reminded the crowd that filled most of the seats in the large auditorium at the Copernicus Center, 5216 W. Lawrence Ave., to refrain from applauding, booing or cheering the candidates' remarks.
"There are lots of enthusiastic people in the 45th Ward," Joravsky said, prompting laughter. "Let's hope they all vote."
The candidates also debated participatory budgeting, ways to reduce the jet noise that has blanketed the Northwest Side since a new runway opened at O'Hare Airport and how they would work with Chicago's mayor.
Arena, who is one of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's most frequent critics, said he was proud of his record of independence on the council.
"I have fought for what is right," Arena said. "I challenge what comes from [the mayor's office on] the Fifth Floor [of City Hall.] They have to earn my vote on your behalf."
But Garrido, Baert and Diaz — whose campaign is being run by Emanuel's former top aide — said they would develop a more collegial and less confrontational relationship with the mayor.
"It can be as damaging to a ward to have an alderman who is a rubber-stamp 'no' as it is to have an alderman who is a rubber-stamp 'yes'," Garrido said.
Garrido, who has been a Chicago police officer for 24 years, was the only candidate to mention crime, using his opening statement to tell a harrowing story of being shot in a convenience store parking lot in his early years on the force.
"If we're not safe in our homes, nothing matters," Garrido said.
The candidates are scheduled to debate again Feb. 3 at Irving Park Baptist Church, 4401 W. Irving Park Road. The Chicago Tribune's Eric Zorn is scheduled to moderate the debate sponsored by the Old Irving Park Association.
A debate hosted by the Gladstone Park Chamber will take place at 7 p.m. Feb. 5 at Hitch School, 5625 N. McVicker Ave.
In races where no candidate earns 50 percent of the votes cast on Feb. 24, a runoff between the top two candidates will take place April 7.
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