The DNAinfo archives brought to you by WNYC.
Read the press release here.

Arena Faces Challenge After Fierce Election: Uniting Polarized 45th Ward

 Ald. John Arena (45th) delivers his victory speech.
Ald. John Arena (45th) delivers his victory speech.
View Full Caption
DNAinfo/Heather Cherone

JEFFERSON PARK — Ald. John Arena (45th) has a long list of items on his agenda for his second term — including a plan to remake the gateway to Jefferson Park, now marred by long-empty pieces of land on Lawrence Avenue.

Although that land has been vacant for nearly 15 years, that may be far from the biggest challenge facing Arena, who has promised to unite the 45th Ward after a bitter, expensive and divisive election.

"I'm four years wiser, four years more mature," Arena said.

Arena defeated Chicago Police Lt. John Garrido by 1,225 votes to win a second term on April 7, a far more comfortable margin of victory than the 30 votes that separated the two political foes after the 2011 election, according to official results from the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.

The final tab for the 2015 45th Ward aldermanic race is more than $1.1 million, with Arena directly spending at least $390,000 to win a second term, and Garrido spending about $140,000, according to records filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections.

Outside groups also spent big in an attempt to sway the outcome of the race, with unions spending about $340,000 to support Arena or oppose Garrido.

"There's no shame in the fact that I raised money for my campaign," Arena said, adding that contributions by such unions as the Service Employee International Union counteract huge amounts of money spent by the wealthiest Chicagoans and big corporations.

Charter school advocates, Mayor Rahm Emanuel's Super PAC and a political organization affiliated with Dan Proft, who ran for governor as a Republican, spent another $331,000 to boost Garrido or criticize Arena.

During his first four years on the City Council, Arena emerged as one of the most vocal critics of Emanuel.

The expensive race turned bitter, with Garrido and Arena trading accusations of dirty tricks and outright lies. Arena painted Garrido as an ill-informed candidate unwilling — or unable — to put forward a vision for the future of the 45th Ward, while Garrido depicted Arena as a combative, divisive politician beholden to unions that have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to his two runs for office.

Arena acknowledged that he must reach out to residents of Gladstone Park and Jefferson Park, who accused the alderman of lavishing attention on the Six Corners Shopping District near his Portage Park home while neglecting the north end of the ward, Garrido's base of support.

In the first round of voting, Arena won every precinct east of Central Avenue, while Garrido won all but one precinct west of Central Avenue. In the runoff, Arena won four precincts west of Central, results show.

DNAinfo/Tanveer Ali

"We did a lot during the runoff to reach those voters," Arena said, calling assertions that he had written off more than half of the 45th Ward ridiculous.

The runoff election's result should help speed progress in the Jefferson Park and Gladstone Park business districts, which are riddled with empty storefronts, Arena said.

"It was tough to have those conversations because of the 30-vote margin," Arena said. "There was the sense that Garrido was going to run again, and they were just waiting for their guy to get into office."

Garrido, who did not return several messages from DNAinfo Chicago about the aftermath of the election, said after the votes were counted that he would not run again.

"We put up a great fight, but couldn't compete with over $700,000 spent on the other side," Garrido posted on Facebook.

The lawyer and police officer changed his campaign Facebook page to a community — the Garrido Network. The page will promote events, share pet rescue information and boost businesses.

Garrido asked supporters to buy furniture from his campaign office, and said he will host a fundraiser on May 7 at La Pena Restaurant, 4212 N. Milwaukee Ave., in an effort to retire $50,000 in campaign debt.

Garrido's campaign committee owes the candidate and his father $83,000 dating to 2009, according to records filed with the State Board of Elections. On March 5 — one month before the election — Garrido paid off $15,000 in debt to himself.

Plans are already in the works to complete a master plan for development in Jefferson Park in an effort to fill empty storefronts and bring national chain stores to the area, Arena said.

Efforts to revitalize the Jefferson Park area will follow the path blazed in the Six Corners Shopping District, home of two dozen new businesses. It's emerging as the arts and culture center of Northwest Side, Arena said.

That revitalization effort includes completing a city-commissioned master plan, as was done in Six Corners. That plan concluded that Six Corners should become more walkable and dense.

Plans are also underway to raise taxes in the Jefferson Park Business District to fund an effort to fill empty storefronts and spruce up the commercial district on Lawrence and Milwaukee avenues.

"Development dollars are ready to come in the neighborhood," Arena said.

The highest-profile project involves several vacant parcels — now used as overflow parking lots for the Copernicus Center and parking for a limo company — that dot Lawrence Avenue east of Milwaukee Avenue, a reminder of an ambitious redevelopment effort by city officials in the mid-1990s and early 2000s.

Before the plan, backed by Mayor Richard M. Daley and former 45th Ward Ald. Pat Levar, fell apart, several buildings were torn down to make way for a condominium development that was scuttled by concerns it was too tall and would create too much traffic.

The lots, partly owned by Mega Realty Group and the city, have been vacant since.

Discussions are already underway on a proposal for a mixed-use development with shops and a "modestly" dense residential development, Arena said.

The development, which will greet motorists leaving the Kennedy Expy. at Lawrence Avenue, must have the "stature" to welcome visitors to Jefferson Park, Arena said.

Arena also is expected to have a more high-profile role at City Hall as one of the leaders of the Council's progressive caucus, which will grow by at least three members.

Arena said he was eager to see a plan from Emanuel to address the looming pension crisis that threatens to upend the city's budget.

A "rational" solution to the problem would include a property tax hike as only the "last and least" option, Arena said.

Arena said he would continue to push to allow Chicago voters to elect the members of the Chicago Board of Education. Emanuel now appoints the board members.

The need for an elected school board has grown in the wake of a federal investigation into a no-bid principal training contract that forced CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett to step down temporarily, Arena said.

"We need a different model," Arena said. "That much should be clear."

For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: