Hairston focuses ward meeting on Lake Michigan levels, Metra Electric fare reduction

Ald. Leslie Hairston speaks about the effects of high lake levels on the shoreline of the South Side of Chicago during her ward meeting. (Photo by Marc Monaghan)

Staff writer

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) made familiar remarks about the chronic disinvestment and need for equity in the South Side at Tuesday’s ward meeting, admonishing officials for not taking the danger Lake Michigan’s extremely high water levels pose to the south shoreline and coming out strongly in favor of a Cook County proposal to lower fares on Metra Electric trains to equal those of the ‘L.’

She also commented on the community benefits agreement (CBA) ordinance she and Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) introduced to City Council over the summer, suggesting big changes are coming to the bill, her sole vote against a contracting measure at Chicago’s airports and the planned grocery store openings in two 5th Ward neighborhoods this fall.

The meeting was held at the South Shore Fine Arts Academy, 1415 E. 70th St. The next one, the last one scheduled for 2019, is scheduled for Oct. 22 at Paul Revere Elementary School, 1010 E. 72nd St.

Lake Michigan levels

On Sept. 5, Hairston attended a meeting about the very high Lake Michigan water levels this year. It was organized by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the Chicago Park District and Department of Transportation. Several local elected officials also attended, including Illinois Sen. Robert Peters (D-13th) and U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-1st).

“The National Weather Service predicts the winter of 2020 will likely have lakeshore flooding caused by strong winds and high waves. An assessment of the lakefront has been completed, but there’s still work to be done,” she said.

In addition to Transportation, the departments of Water and Streets and Sanitation will be installing modular concrete Jersey walls and sandbags along the lakefront through the end of October, she said, and contingency plans to close portions of Lake Shore Drive are being developed.

Hairston said she is planning a walking lakefront tour with U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly (D-2nd), Rush, Peters and numerous aldermen, including Sophia King (4th), though said no date has yet been picked.

“I’m on-record stating that the south lakefront has been grossly ignored, and the presentation confirmed the lack of future planning to shore up the southern lakefront,” she said. “I feel a coalition of my colleagues from the city, state and federal levels working together can assure that the south lakefront gets the attention and funding it desperately needs.”

She castigated the meeting organizers for focusing their presentation on the North Side. “It just shows that they don’t even think about the South Side when they talk about erosion and the lakefront,” she said, recalling flooding near Jeffrey Avenue and Lake Shore Drive in Jackson Park, where pedestrian paths have been closed throughout the summer.

She also told the Corps of Engineers that the Park District’s information was “not necessarily the whole picture” and that, on the South Side, there are “miles of lakefront that need the same amount of attention if not more because they have been neglected for so long.”

Metra Electric pilot fare reduction

One of Toni Preckwinkle’s longtime allies, Hairston came out in strong support of the Cook County executive’s proposal to lower the fare on the Metra Electric for a three-year pilot period.

“Do you think that those of us on the South Side should have reduced fares for Metra?” Hairston asked meeting attendees. “I was talking to somebody yesterday who had never been on the Metra before and lives on the South Side.”

While several of its lines serve stops within city limits — indeed, the Electric District’s South Chicago Branch terminates at 93rd Street after running through Kenwood, Hyde Park, Woodlawn and South Shore — Hairston said the Chicagoland commuter rail operator has always been “suburban-focused” in their services and system maintenance.

Hairston said she did not know if Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s opposition to the county’s pilot plan was in good faith, presuming that CTA ridership decline was because of ride-sharing services. (Lightfoot’s rationale is that the pilot would further diminish the city’s mass transit operator’s ridership, which declined 2.5% last year.)

“If people are not taking Metra anyway, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re taking CTA, either,” Hairston said. “You have to try new things, and you have to try different things. But you don’t try something unless you have proof that it’s going to hinder something else.”

On Wednesday, Metra spokesman Michael Gillis confirmed that there is “no fiscal impact yet known” from the planned pilot program. Preckwinkle said last Friday that the county would cover the costs.

Airports and Council news

Hairston then pivoted to her longstanding advocacy for a third Chicagoland airport in the south suburbs, dismissing critics’ concerns that establishing one would impact operations at Midway and O’Hare.

Hairston, who serves on the Aviation Committee, was the only alderman who voted against an ordinance giving lease and license agreements to Alclear, LLC — a New York-based technology company that operates CLEAR, the security-bypassing service — at Chicago’s airports. She said she voted “no” because Alclear has no Black representation and few nonwhite subcontractors and complained that the city only gave the committee the 322-page bill two minutes before the meeting started.

The City Council passed numerous changes to Chicago’s fines and fees system on Sept. 18, ending the automatic suspension of driver’s licenses for non-moving violations, eliminating same- or consecutive-day ticketing, establishing six-month payment plans for fines, giving booted motorists 24 hours to either pay fines or get on a payment plan, reinstating grace periods for city sticker violations and lowering their associated fines. Hairston celebrated the reforms and praised other aldermen and the Mayor their work.

She also praised the Council for passing an ordinance increasing the percentage of condominium owners who must approve a plan to de-convert their buildings to 85% from 75%, calling it “a good thing to help safeguard displacement for people who have been in their units long-term” and praising its applicability for buildings that have older residents, deferred maintenance or absentee owners.

Hairston also noted her support for a resolution that moved the Health and Human Relations Committee create a commission to study reparations for Black Chicagoans, which she said would take the form of “restitution, compensation, satisfaction and rehabilitation for Black people.”

Community benefits agreement

The CBA ordinance covering areas in the 5th and 20th wards within a two-mile radius of the planned Obama Presidential Center has seen no action in the Council or the Housing Committee, though Hairston said in an interview that she and other aldermen continue to work on it.

“We’ve got the housing experts [and] we’re rolling the aldermanic group into them,” Hairston said, referring to a working group she put together with Alds. King, Taylor, Maria Hadden (49th), Howard Brookins, Jr. (21st), Pat Dowell (3rd) and committee chairman Harry Osterman (48th).

While the introduced affordable requirements ordinance establishes 30% affordability set-asides in new housing across the coverage zone, Hairston said a revised ordinance would treat Woodlawn, Hyde Park and South Shore differently.

“The demographics are different, when you talk about what makes sense for each of these communities,” she explained. “You’ve got more houses in Woodlawn; you’ve got a mixture of houses and apartment buildings in South Shore and the same in Hyde Park.”

Hairston suggested that the legislative process will be slow as Lightfoot continues a listening tour on the OPC and said she has no timeline for the CBA. “I keep pushing it. We’re going to do it,” she said. “It’s a big project, and that’s why we want to do it the right way.”

Local business openings

Hairston said that Trader Joe’s in Hyde Park and Shop & Save Market in South Shore would likely open late October. She also celebrated the recent opening of Reggie’s on the Beach, 6259 S. Lake Shore Drive.

“It’s nice to be able to enjoy a meal and libations and sit out, look at the lakefront and this beautiful City of Chicago,” she said. “There’s nothing more perfect than the summer. I won’t comment on the winters.”

She said she hopes to begin hosting a “neighborhood night” at Reggie’s next summer, that its proprietors hope to host live entertainment in the future and that it plans to close for the season on Nov. 1.