Opposing forces were lining up for the fight.
September 6, 2013
A VG Serial: ToxiCity
Despite a recent renovation, the Village hearing room was still as dull as the meetings that were held in it. Molded grey chairs filled most of the room, except for a curved blond wood desk in front. Microphone stands curled over the desk, and a podium stood a few feet away. But the raised dais that used to separate petitioners from decision-makers was gone. Everyone was now on the same level, the same “playing field.” Had to be the brainstorm of some industrial psychologist, Stone figured. Architectural populism hits the suburbs.
The room was filled to capacity, and an overflow lined the halls. A few people held hand-printed signs with the letters “CEASE,” scrawled in black markers. Others had green ribbons pinned to their jackets.
Ricki Feldman and her staff settled in the front row, seeming oblivious to the many looks that were flashed her way. Stone checked his watch. The meeting was called for seven thirty; it was seven forty-five. He squeezed into a seat.
Seven people filed into the room and took seats at the desk, each setting a name placard in front of them. The crowd quieted. A ruddy, blond man gaveled the meeting to order. Stone checked the placard. Chairman Sandy Pilsen. Stone knew the name; his son had been stopped for a DUI a month ago.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.” Pilsen smiled politely. “First of all, let me apologize for the lack of space. We didn’t expect this kind of turnout. What we have managed to do is pipe the PA system out to the hall, so at least everyone will hear the proceedings. We’ll find a larger location for the next meeting. Please bear with us.” He started to read from a paper.
“The role of the Planning and Zoning Commission is to make recommendations to the Board of Trustees on specific planning and zoning issues. Tonight, we begin a series of hearings on the parcel of land at the southeast corner of Waukegan and Willow Roads. The Commission will hear from the applicant, SGF Development. Then we’ll take comments.”
Stone forced himself to pay attention.
“Let the record reflect the presence of the applicant’s architect, lawyer, and traffic expert, as well as the Executive Vice-President of SGF Development. You take it from here, okay?”
Pilsen looked over at Ricki. A silver-haired, well-dressed man on her right rose from his chair, walked to the podium, and placed some papers on it. He scanned the crowd.
“Good evening, Mr. Chairman, members of the commission, and residents of Northview. I’m Paul Landon, architect for SGF Development. I’ll begin with a brief summary of our plans for the proposed Northview Center.” He launched into a description of the mall: a ten-acre complex with approximately six hundred thousand square feet of commercial space, three major anchor stores, fifty to seventy five smaller retail outlets, and twelve hundred parking spaces.
Twenty minutes later, Landon was still taking the crowd through the plans. Stone got up to stretch. He wandered to the back of the room, nearly colliding with a middle-aged woman and a younger man leaning against the wall. The woman, who looked to be in her fifties, had blond hair with dark roots. She was gazing at the Feldman woman as if trying to memorize her features.
Stone didn’t recognize her, but he was surprised at how many others he did. Only a year had passed since he’d moved in with Deanna, but the number of nods he exchanged made him feel settled, a part of the community.
When Landon finished, the commission members peppered him with questions about height restrictions, setbacks, and ventilation systems. Landon seemed prepared and answered smoothly, including some thorny questions about fire lanes and visual sight lines.
Next was the traffic consultant’s turn. A tall man with a pinched face, he promised there would be no new congestion in the area. Stone knew the man was headed for trouble.
“Excuse me, sir.” Christine Renfrow, a commissioner whose over-sized glasses gave her an owlish expression, interrupted. “How can you possibly claim that rush hour traffic, which is already a nightmare on Willow Road, won’t be affected by the mall?”
The traffic expert said the two egresses, one on Willow, and one on Waukegan, would prevent additional tie-ups.
“But you’re going to have hundreds of cars feeding into a two lane road,” Renfrow went on. “Cars that aren’t there now. Your conclusions were drawn from a study that was conducted at mid-day when traffic is minimal. That makes it virtually useless.”
The traffic engineer tried to parry, but a buzz went up from the audience. “Why don’t you re-do your traffic study during rush hour?” Renfrow said, “Then let us hear the conclusions.”
The traffic engineer scowled. Mumbling something off-mike, he looked relieved to sit down.
“That concludes the applicant’s presentation,” Pilsen said. “After a ten minute break, we’ll hear from members of the community.”
During the break, someone placed a microphone stand in the center aisle and a line of people queued up at it. Once again, Pilsen gaveled the meeting to order. An elderly man with a shock of white hair and a green ribbon pinned to his jacket was first. “I’d like to go on record —” he said in a raspy voice.
“Excuse me, sir, please state your name and address,” Pilsen cut in.
“Sorry.” The man cleared his throat. “I’m Timothy Stargis, Two Twenty-five Bosworth, and I’d like to go on record as saying developments like this are slowly but surely stripping our community of its heritage and turning it into a faceless suburb. Now, I know my time is nearly over, but what kind of legacy are we leaving our children? Enough is enough.”
The audience applauded. Pilsen banged his gavel. Stargis moved back to his seat. Several audience members pumped his hand.
Next was a thirty-something woman with a green ribbon pinned to her denim jacket. Stone thought he recognized her. “Good evening. I’m Ann Heller. I live on Sunset Drive, and I’m very upset about this proposal. It puts all our children’s lives at risk. We all know the added traffic and density will force the county to widen Willow. We’ll have a six-lane highway running through the center of town. How many children are going to lose their lives because of reckless drivers? Please, do not approve this.”
More applause from the audience. Heller smiled as if she’d won a victory. Pilsen frowned. Stone remembered how he knew her. Ann Heller walked her dog down Happ Road. It was a big dog.
A man in a glen plaid suit was next. “Gerald Krieger, Woodlands North. I’m an attorney, and I have a question. Is the village board bound by your recommendation?”
Pilsen shook his head. “No. Of course not.”
“No? Then why does this sound like it’s a done deal? That we’re just going through the motions?”
Pilsen reddened. “I can assure you that is not the case, Mr. Krieger. The commission won’t take a vote for several weeks.”
“Look. I know for a fact that the developer on this proposal has already spent a lot of money, and I’d like an accounting of that money. I think we’re entitled.”
The audience buzzed. Pilsen’s mouth tightened. “Mr. Krieger, as an attorney, you know that a privately owned business is not required to disclose to the village how much they spend on a proposal. Nor is it in our purview to ask. I would direct you to ask SGF Development yourself. But understand they are not required to answer.”
The audience fidgeted; a reporter from the weekly newspaper scribbled.
“I see.” Krieger paused. “Well that being the case, I suggest the village ask itself a fundamental question.” He waved a hand toward the commissioners. “Why are we allowing this to go forward? Is it greed—or need?” Krieger shaped his fingers into a gun and pointed it at Pilsen. “Mr. Chairman, no one has convinced me there is a need for this development, so I can only assume it is greed that is driving this project. And that” he paused again, “is unacceptable.”
Krieger slid the mike back into the mike-stand with a flourish. The audience went up for grabs. People shouted; some rose from their seats.
Pilsen, red-faced and sweaty, pounded the gavel. “If we can’t keep this civil, ladies and gentlemen, we’ll call it a night.” He looked at his watch and then at the line of speakers behind the floor mike. “Unfortunately, we have time for only one more speaker, but those of you who would like to comment can do so in writing.”
A grumble went up from the line of people, but they dispersed without incident. One woman remained at the mike. Ricki Feldman leaned over to whisper to the architect.
“Barbara Michaelson. 2044 Suffork Road. I am spearheading CEASE, the Citizens’ Effort Against Senseless Expansion. Over four hundred of us have banded together to oppose this project. Members of the PTA, the church, the synagogue, the Village Caucus, the League of Women Voters, even the Garden Club. In other words, we are the village. We believe this development scheme is too large, too late, and too disruptive.
“We have commissioned our own traffic study which directly contradicts the Feldman document. We believe that in a matter as important as this, it is critical that the commission weigh more than one opinion. Now you have a second. We demand that you analyze it before you make a decision. Do not approve this project.”
Pilsen bent his microphone. “Mrs. Michaelson, we will certainly review your study. Thank you.”
By now the mood in the room had soured, and many residents were filing out. Whether they were confident of victory or full of despair, Stone couldn’t tell. The woman and the young man he’d seen earlier brushed by him, the woman looking furtively at the Feldman group.
An older woman raised a defiant fist as she hurried from the room. “You haven’t heard the end of this. CEASE will prevail!” It was Florence Armstrong, a well-known village activist. Stone jotted down her name.
Episodes in the novel will be published on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
Please click the following title,ToxiCity, to read more about Libby Fischer Hellman’s books on Amazon.