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Deb Mell: Saying I Approved This Deal A Dishonest, Gross Misrepresentation

By Ariel Cheung | May 2, 2017 8:33am
 A proposed development at 3154 N. Elston Ave. lacks the approval of Ald. Deb Mell (33rd) and neighbors.
A proposed development at 3154 N. Elston Ave. lacks the approval of Ald. Deb Mell (33rd) and neighbors.
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AVONDALE — A proposed development described in real estate listings as "approved by" Ald. Deb Mell (33rd) and Avondale neighbors has come under fire after the claim proved false.

In fact, Mell herself called the listing a "gross misrepresentation" of 2016 preliminary meetings regarding 3154 N. Elston Ave.

A 74-foot development with 62 residential units, the building would fill the 90,000-square-foot vacant property that extends to 3131 N. California Ave.

While involved parties said the listing was the result of miscommunication, Mell said it isn't the first time the property owner has "unscrupulously misrepresented my views."

Last week, Mell sent a letter to zoning attorney Sara Barnes asking that her client Howard Stillman "cease and desist any additional actions which may further deteriorate his already strained relationship with my office."

Mell wrote that she was "surprised and disappointed" to see claims of her approval after a preliminary meeting with Barnes and Stillman a year ago.

"With his dishonest and unethical sales tactics, Mr. Stillman has undermined my reputation and the reputations of community groups in my ward in a rapacious attempt to mislead potential buyers," Mell said in the letter.


When her staff met with developers last year, the alderman didn't think the design was "a viable proposal" for the former Wayne Electric site, chief of staff Jason Hernandez said.

"It just wasn't on paper what we envision for that little corner, [to the extend that] we didn't even take it to a neighborhood group," he said.

The project stalled after Mell sent developers back to the drawing board, with nothing new until the real estate listing surfaced in mid-April, Hernandez said.

"Most property owners respect the process and understand they can't take a property to market saying it's been approved by the alderman," he said. "Such a complete misrepresentation on our view on this and telling the community this has been vetted when it hasn't is very, very concerning to us."

The northeast corner of Elston and California, as of September 2016. [Screenshot/Google Maps]

Stillman said his brother Ronald Stillman is the actual property owner, and that he met with the alderman's office on his brother's behalf while Ronald was out of town. City and state records point to Ronald Stillman as the owner of the two plots.

He attributed the misleading listing to "a communication error."

"Maybe if he were around, it wouldn't have occurred," Howard Stillman said of his brother, who is set to return to Chicago in a month.

Strauss Realty removed the language after speaking with Mell's office, but the project is still listed as "approved by the Alderman and neighborhood groups" on Loopnet.com, a free service that re-posts listings from its subscription-based parent company, Co-Star.

Strauss real estate broker Craig Wolf said the misleading listing was not made with malicious intent and chalked it up to a "miscommunication among many parties that resulted in the wrong terminology."

Wolf said he has reached out to Loopnet to correct the listing and hopes to resolve the issue soon.

It's an uncommon mix-up in what is usually a smooth process between Mell's office, the Avondale Neighborhood Association and zoning attorneys like Barnes, each said.

"It's our policy to always meet with the alderman and get their feedback first," Barnes said Friday. "We certainly don't want this to darken their reputation or ours."

Barnes said it was unclear where the misunderstand came from, but that she worked with the alderman's office to get it corrected as quickly as possible.

"I have the utmost respect for Ald. Mell and everything she's done," Barnes said. "And she did not give us approval or any type of formal support."

The northeast corner of Elston and California has been vacant since 2015, when developers razed the former Wayne Electric building and a small, set-back shack on Elston.

The former Wayne Electric building at 3131 N. California Ave. was demolished in 2015. [Screenshot/Google Maps]

At that time, Mell said in an email newsletter that a group of investors bought the properties and demolished the vacant buildings rather than maintain them.

"They have no tenants or firm plans in the works, but when they do, they will reach back to us," the newsletter said. "Any zoning requests made by the developers will be required to go through a community input process prior to support from the alderman."