Emails Show 45th Ward Development Projects Languish in an Abyss

In a recent interview with radio host Joan Esposito, Alderman Jim Gardiner named development as his top priority in the ward; however, communications between his ward office and developers paint a different picture. The attorney for one developer described the process as “devastating” with a need to “stop his own bleeding” while another described the alderman as “very unprofessional...humiliating…non-attentive, aggressive and difficult to deal with.”

It’s perhaps not surprising that an office plagued by staff turnover has had difficulty operating as a well-oiled machine. Gardiner, who has been in office less than two years, has seen eight staff members resign or terminated. In addition to high turnover, it’s clear from these emails that Gardiner’s inability to make decisions and provide honest feedback are significant factors in creating delays and frustration with developers.

Throughout these communications, obtained via Freedom of Information Act requests, staff repeatedly excuse Gardiner’s lack of responsiveness and engagement by saying he is “very busy”. A check of Gardiner’s official Facebook page during this timeframe shows that he manages to find plenty of time to patrol the ward acting like the police, filming videos about crime, posting photos of Streets & Sans workers, and trolling constituents on his page. Just this past Friday evening, Gardiner spent over two hours, running well past midnight, replying to Facebook comments about the parking situation he created for tenants at Montrose & Lacrosse, after taking time to grant another interview to a self-described “reporter” in Dunning.

There are currently several projects pending which have seen delays:

Dakin and Pulaski

The developer behind a proposed residential development at Dakin and Pulaski had hoped to start work late last year, on a project that would have created 80 jobs. Instead he has taken “an irreconcilable hit” and lost his financing due to repeated delays and lack of follow-through by Gardiner and his staff, despite repeated appeals to Gardiner to advance the project over more than a year.

February 2020
Developer meets with GIPNA to present plans. GIPNA sent feedback on the plans to Gardiner and the developer.

April 20, 2020
With no written communications in over two months, the developer emails Gardiner’s office asking what they can do to move the project forward, adding:

“This is the only project I have on the docket and my guys will be out of work by September if I’m unable to move forward. I’d really appreciate your help… it means jobs and food on the table for at least 50 families. Thank you!”

Gardiner’s assistant, Rita, replies:

Sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner. I talked to Alderman Gardiner about your proposal yesterday and he sounded very positive. He didn’t give me a final decision, but I’m going to call him soon… and I will ask about your development.

Rita suggests scheduling a call later in the week.

April 27, 2020
After a week passes with no follow-up from Gardiner’s staff to setup a meeting, the developer writes again:

Hi Rita, it looks like this slipped through the cracks last week. Is there a time that works for you this week?

Rita apologizes again for lack of responsiveness and schedules a call for the next day.

August 31, 2020 email from zoning attorney to Alderman Gardiner and staff

August 31, 2020
It seems there had been an agreement coming out of the April call that Gardiner would take the next steps on gathering further community input; however, there had been no update from his office in the four months since. The attorney for the developer emailed Rita and Gardiner directly:

In light of the ongoing economic hardship plaguing the City, Joseph [the developer] is very eager to get this project going and delivered to the Community, as soon as possible. The holding costs on the property are proving to be devastating.

The last time we spoke, the Alderman was going to canvas the area, in an attempt to get a broader, yet still generalized consensus on where the Community stands on the project. Were you able to gather that information?? Could we file a Zoning Change Application, based on the current plan??

She adds that the developer has secured a commitment on financing the project based on the proposed plan and asks for guidance on how to proceed.

November 24, 2020
After no response to the email three months prior, the attorney emails again to both Rita and Gardiner writing:

[We] were hoping to get this project moving again, as there are many people struggling through unemployment and family loss… This project should generate over 80 jobs and deliver much needed construction and tax revenues into our Community Base…

…we were wondering if it would be okay to please proceed with the Zoning Change Application, based on the latest reduced programming for the site, and with the additional commitments and supporting evidence (i.e. traffic study)?

Rita replies saying:

After your last call, I talked to Alderman Gardiner briefly about what next steps he would like to take. He has been busy with budget, but I will talk to him and get back to you.

This was the day the city budget was passed, so there was no remaining budget work to be done, and it had been months since Gardiner seems to have committed to take next steps.

December 8, 2020
The attorney emails Rita after there was again no follow-up:

I am just checking back to see if you may have had an opportunity to speak with the Alderman about resurrecting the project??

Rita responds:

I did talk to Alderman Gardiner about the project and asked him how he wanted to proceed. I have the letter you were so kind to draft and asked if he wants to distribute that to the residents on Dakin. He said he would think about it. I will talk to him again today and ask if he would like to meet… I will try to get back to you today.

After dodging any material response or work to advance this project over the calendar year, the best Gardiner’s office has to offer is that Gardiner will “think about it” and doesn’t yet know how he wants to proceed.

January 20, 2021 email from zoning attorney to Alderman Gardiner’s assistant

January 20, 2021
More than a month later, again after no follow-up from Gardiner’s office, the attorney tries again:

By chance… do you have any word back from the Alderman — on this fossilized one???

Joseph has endured an irreconcilable hit on this property, from which we are now simply trying to mitigate. We are super excited about finishing the project… However, I do not think that Joseph can hold on too much longer without having to do a less desirable ‘as of right’ project, merely to stop his own bleeding.

Any advisement that you may provide would be sooo incredibly gratefully appreciated.

Two days later Rita responded simply that she will talk to Gardiner about it and see how he would like to proceed.

February 8, 2021
Now a year after the initial meeting with GIPNA, the attorney follows up with Rita again, this time acknowledging that they spoke via phone the week prior about various ward projects. Though her email is specific to this one:

I have a conference call with Joseph — TOMORROW, to come up with a game plan for this one. Sadly, he has lost his financing, so we either need to try to find a different lender for the project — as is, or take a completely new direction.

So that I may properly advise Joseph, accordingly, were you ever able to get any further thoughts from the Alderman?

The next day Rita responds:

I did have an opportunity to talk to Alderman Gardiner again on Friday… he said to set up a meeting with you and Joseph in a few weeks.

There is no indication that anything was scheduled. There is no other communication about this project through March 15, the final date of our FOIA request. The only other correspondence with the attorney was an email from Rita on February 16:

I’m writing to let you know I resigned from Alderman Gardiner’s office effective today.

It’s unclear why, in more than a year, Gardiner has been unable to come to a decision to support the project or a decision to give clear guidance on what would be acceptable so the developer can move forward or move on.

5850 N Elston Ave

This is a relatively new development proposal, which would require a zoning change, at the site of the Elston Avenue United Methodist Church; however, Gardiner’s office has not gotten off to a reassuring start.

February 2, 2021
The developer’s attorney emails Rita the plans, requested zoning change, and a request to meet with the alderman. Rita did not reply at any point before resigning February 16.

February 25, 2021
The attorney calls Gardiner’s office to follow-up. After speaking with Gardiner’s assistant, Maree, he forwards her the email he’d previously sent to Rita and again asks for a meeting.

Marie replies that she will speak with the alderman and get back to the attorney “ASAP”.

March 5, 2021
The attorney emails Maree again “just following up” since he has not yet heard back from Maree. There is no other response from Maree between this email and March 15, the final date of our FOIA request.

In a March 25 story published by Nadig Newspapers, Gardiner acknowledges that as of early March he had not spoken to the developer.

Other Developer Complaints

Other developers have written directly to City officials asking for help in trying to deal with Gardiner. Including:

We have been trying to work with Alderman Gardiner. Unfortunately, we have found the Alderman to be very unprofessional. He seems non-attentive, aggressive and difficult to deal with.

He [Gardiner] is discourteous to the point he mocked us… it was humiliating. We have come to the sad conclusion that we cannot work with Alderman Gardiner…”

Alderman Gardiner told us that it was a good project and would get it passed… It has now been over a year since we first met and the Alderman is no longer interested in working with us…

We have paid over $100,000 in property taxes…we have been unable to sell nor lease the property. We desperately would like to get it developed.

While projects such as Northwestern’s Medical Facility on Irving Park Road and a new cultural arts center on Lawrence Ave have advanced through zoning with Gardiner’s approval, Gardiner has unnecessarily delayed or outright killed far more projects.

In 2019, Gardiner stalled The Point project at Six Corners (now The Clarendale) for a full year. In 2020, Gardiner killed the approved plan to build a pedestrian friendly plaza at Cuyler and Milwaukee. He then waffled on the sale and development of the old firehouse property on Lipps and Ainsle, unwilling to take a definitive stance and in December, Gardiner killed a 36-unit residential development project proposed at 5071 N. Northwest Highway.

Gardiner has offered no insights into Novak’s plans for the old Sears site, as interior demolition continues. The GW Properties project at the old People’s Gas site languishes, as DPD and at least six community groups around Six Corners expressed opposition for the all-retail plan — information Gardiner had withheld from the public for six weeks until we broke the news. The groups asked DPD to help facilitate a cohesive vision for the area. Such planning would normally be led by the alderman, but the letters seem to implicitly acknowledge Gardiner lacks the interest or ability in such planning.

While Gardiner claims development is his top priority, the record shows many developers have found him difficult to work with, he’s demonstrated a pattern of indecisiveness, and both he and his staff are unresponsive. Meanwhile, many constituents are critical of Gardiner who ran a campaign centered around transparency and community participation, promising to create a Zoning Advisory Board which still does not exist nearly two years in to his term.

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