WEST TOWN — The last 26th Ward forum before election day drew an engaged group of residents Tuesday night for discussion of issues in the ward encompassing pieces of Humboldt Park, West Humboldt Park, Logan Square, West Town and Hermosa.
All three candidates — Adam Corona, Juanita Irizarry and incumbent Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th) — were in attendance for a series of eight questions touching on community policing, gentrification, ward zoning and development and local Tax Increment Financing, among others.
The forum was hosted by the Smith Park Neighborhood Alliance and West Town Neighbors Association in the showroom of EuroFurniture, 2145 W. Grand Ave., where more than 80 people filled tables and seats that were also for sale.
Moderator Kim Shepherd, a Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy facilitator for police beat 1221, began with an issue close to home, asking candidates whether they would vote for a budget that didn’t include money to hire more police in the ward.
According to Shepherd, the closing of the 13th district police station and subsequent merging with the Near West District in 2011 reduced the total police force from 532 officers to 343.
Of the three, Maldonado was the only candidate to express some dissent from the ranks when he argued that areas in or near West Town like Smith Park and Ukrainian Village are already safer than average with a higher number of officers than average.
“I would prefer to put them in those areas where they area needed,” he said. “I want the average citizen to feel as safe as they do in Smith Park.”
Corona expressed unequivocal support for hiring more officers while Irizarry argued that officers already in the department need relief, which could in turn improve response times.
“I too am very committed to hiring more police officers,” Irizarry said, noting her recent endorsement from the Fraternal Order of Police.
Gentrification, Zoning/Development and Tax Increment Financing
The candidates also separated themselves on issues of gentrification in parts of the 26th Ward when asked what factors have contributed to socioeconomic and racial diversity in the area.
“I think gentrification does good for the neighborhood,” Corona told the crowd. “I welcome diversity … I welcome gentrification and I know it goes in cycles, but gentrification has pushed a lot of these bad apples [out of the neighborhood]."
Irizarry and Maldonado took a markedly different stance with Irizarry arguing for a “healthy mixed income community” through support of policy related to affordable housing, and Maldonado noting his support of the upcoming 65th Infantry Borinqueneers Building and Paseo Boricua, both aimed at sustaining Humboldt Park’s Puerto Rican population, which has seen a decline in recent years largely due to rising property values and displacement.
The forum moved easily into tangentially-related issues of zoning, development and the Kinzie Industrial Corridor TIF district, an 1,100 –acre area which includes EuroFurniture.
Corona repeated his vow to start a series of committees for pressing issues in the ward, including zoning and development, while also vowing to end no-bid contracts in an effort toward transparency. Irizarry also began her answer in support of transparency in development proceedings and the recent affordable housing ordinance, though she agreed with Maldonado that the ordinance needs “tweaking” in order to reflect economics on the ground in 26th Ward neighborhoods like Humboldt Park and Logan Square.
Maldonado, as in the last 26th Ward forum, proposed that “every single [city-owned] lot be made available to build affordable homes” to increase availability of housing for mid to lower income residents in the area.
“I support economic, racial and ethnic diversity in the 26th Ward, but some of my opponents don’t believe in that,” he said.
Residents across the board will need city services, a point addressed in a resident-submitted question that served as both a chastisement and a call to action.
“Some residents in this area of the ward feel like it is treated as an afterthought when it comes to basic city services,” the question read. “It’s really tough to watch trucks go load up with salt … and come down our streets without dropping any or lowering their blade. What will you do to ensure this area gets the city services residents deserve?”
The question was a softball for Corona, who currently works full-time as the 45th Ward Streets and Sanitation Superintendent and counts Ald. John Arena (45th) as “a mentor.”
“As a ward superintendent these are the questions I get everyday … and I’m addressing every single one of them,” he said. “I’ve been in the trenches, I’m willing to roll up my sleeves and get to work.”
Maldonado counted the controversial transition of Ames Middle School to Marine Leadership Academy as one of his accomplishments, noting that the school was on probation for about a dozen years before the conversion after he was challenged on the issue by Irizarry.
“I want to be bring an independent leadership that we haven’t had in the ward,” Irizarry said, addressing the alderman’s “rubber stamp” support for 95 percent of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s initiatives. “I will do that with transparency and integrity.”
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