Whereas The Congress Theater’s first Deleterious Impact Public Nuisance hearing on April 17, 2012 yielded a packed, near standing room only crowd, only about 20 people or one third that amount attended the venue’s second hearing on Tuesday, June 19th in the Business Affairs and Consumer Protection chambers on the 8th floor of City Hall.
The mediation hearing, which is excluded from the Open Meetings Act and does not permit photography or recording, was again facilitated by Assistant City Commissioner Barbara Gressel.
Lasting about two hours, the gathering included participation from 14th District Police Commander Linda Flores, Captain Marc Buslik, Sgt. Joseph Giambrone, Ronda Locke, Director of Community Outreach for 1st Ward Alderman Moreno’s office (Moreno arrived near the end of the meeting, having been tied up at a meeting), neighbors of the venue, members of the Greater Goethe Neighborhood Association (GGNA) and Eddie Carranza, owner of the theater.
Carranza was accompanied by Homero Tristan and Pedro Cervantes of Tristan & Cervantes, the venue’s counsel, as well as Thomas Raines, an attorney hired by Carranza two months ago who specializes in municipal law.
Gressel began by recapping the previous mediation, and the steps that were outlined for the Congress to take, primarily involving improvement with security and sound levels as well as establishing a protocol for better communication with neighbors of the venue, the alderman, and the police department.
Since the first hearing on April 17th, Giambrone said that there’s been 10 calls for service from the theater, resulting in four police reports involving a robbery, battery, a previously reported on May 6th liquor violation, and theft of a cell phone (which was recovered one week later). Of most concern to Giambrone and others in the room was a report from nearby St. Mary’s Hospital, which had treated seven individuals allegedly under the age of 17 on May 6th between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. The patients had arrived to the hospital’s ER in the Congress’s private ambulance. (Having reported only on the May 6 arrest of Mahidi, The Pipeline had been unaware of the events at St Mary’s ER until they were shared at yesterday’s gathering).
Overwhelmingly, that incident aside, the vibe in the room was positive between all parties who seemed committed to working together. Gressel said, “We don’t just have three meetings. We’re here for the long haul, here to make sure our businesses in Chicago are good businesses and thriving and I think we can have it all.”
Commander Flores said that weekly updates sent by Jazmine De Natera, an employee of the venue, pertaining to what musical acts are playing, and the expected capacity have been helpful. Flores remarked that a large sign posted in the window of the theater detailing what is not allowed to be brought inside the venue has proven to be an improvement. In the near future, Flores requested more frequent meetings directly with Carranza, the licensee, as well as access to the theater’s exterior and interior security camera footage, preceded by a walk through to see the placement of the cameras.
Buslik remarked that his “only concern is still issues involving security. There’s still off duty officers working in violation of policy.”
On the topic of security, Giambrone and various neighbors of the theater all said that they noticed a marked improvement with bright orange vests that clearly say security.
Joe Kopera, a near lifelong neighbor of the venue, living just 1/2 block away, came prepared with two years of arrest reports gathered during his tenure as a volunteer CAPS advocate for the 14th District (as reported previously, Kopera resigned from his volunteer position after an April 13, 2012 incident at the theater he described as a massive overreaction by police.)
“I still feel that Congress is being singled out [from other venues],” Kopera told Gressel, before handing over the reports to her and her team for review. Kopera says that he walks his dog every morning and can’t distinguish whether the trash he sees comes from V Live, Ultra Lounge, or the Congress. [Public] urination, Kopera said, “is not unique to the Congress.”
Gressel responded to Kopera with some facts about the process. “Right now 20 [businesses] are going through the process and there’s a dozen more on
the waiting list. All of those feel like they are being singled out.”
After assuring Kopera and others that the Congress is part of a mediation process and not a disciplinary one, Gressel moved on to welcome more feedback. Mark Levin has lived on the 2100 block of North Maplewood alongside the alley of the theater for about a year and expressed one incident of excessive noise earlier this month that took place on the night of a Naughty by Nature concert which he said was caused by a door ajar, facing the alley.
Another neighbor, who spoke at the first hearing and who has lived two doors from the theater for 38 years, on the 2100 block of N. Rockwell, said that she has seen some improvement and wishes there could be more. “[The sound] is more of a muffled noise now,” she said. The woman added that she’s witnessed more security personnel patrolling the streets since the last hearing and that De Natera has been quick to respond to text messages, save for one occasion.
Mark Serpico, the venue’s sound engineer, reported that all 13 doors along the alley, constructed of steel, have been fitted with insulation and custom curtains have been ordered and are expected to be installed soon. Within a packet given to all attendees by the Congress were photos of audio equipment elevated from the ground, thereby reducing noise levels. Serpico said that he had been in touch with five neighbors on Maplewood who all reported considerable improvement in sound levels. Adding a bit of humor, he addressed Levin personally. “But clearly I didn’t speak with you!” Serpico said.
A man living over a block away on Stave requested that the alderman’s office crack down on sales of permitted parking passes, wherein residents can purchase up to 30 passes monthly for $36, and have been selling them for $5 each on the “black market.”
Locke, like many others, thanked De Natera for improved communication and also said her office has seen prompt clean up by the part of the Congress employees after shows. (Since the last hearing, promoters are no longer permitted to distribute fliers).
After processing all of the feedback, Gressel observed, “There’s been a noticed improvement in physical security and a slight improvement in noise.”
In addition to security and sound improvements, efforts have been made to secure more dedicated parking for the venue’s patrons. Locke reported that she had just received another call back about the possible renting of a parking lot just north of the theater and is working with Carranza directly on that matter. Additionally, a request was put in by the theater to repave pot holes in its back alley, and, pending an evaluation, if funds are approved they will come out of the Alderman’s menu funding next year.
Gressel outlined 11 steps that she would like Carranza to take by the next meeting: 1) Basset Certificate Training for all servers and anyone checking IDs at the door, 2) adopting a zero tolerance for admission of anyone who appears to be under the influence, 3) a security evaluation by a professional firm, 4) a determination of venue occupancy, 5) keeping doors along alley closed to prevent noise disruption, 6) a sound level evaluation report, 7) continued communication between De Natera and the community through phone and text messaging, 8) ongoing 1-on-1 meetings between Carranza and Commander Flores, 9) working with the alderman’s office on preventing “black market” sales of parking permits, 10) maintaining a 9-1-1 call log and a clean up log, and lastly, the biggest issue, as Gressel saw it, was the under 21 shows. She asked if there are wristbands for over 21 patrons (there are) and encouraged Carranza to “figure out how to address the under 21 crowd” and even went as far as asking Carranza to consider eliminating all 21 and under shows.
Raines, speaking on behalf of the theater, said that he feels overwhelmingly that there’s been substantial improvement and that the soundproofing is still being addressed. He said that the Congress plans to continue attending all CAPS meetings and providing information to police and alderman’s office at least weekly.
For his part, Carranza said, “The two main issues are security and noise, and we are going to try to eliminate them as much as possible and try to eliminate them completely.” Carranza invited the community to come to the theater and see the work that’s been done. “We welcome you to come in, give suggestions, ideas, see what we are doing.” He also said that he plans to hire a professional security company soon.
After the meeting, Alderman Moreno shared with The Pipeline that he feels a consistent and strong security presence will be what’s most important to the Congress in the future and that he hopes in matters of wondering whether to remove a patron that the Congress “errs on the side of removing [the patron.]” Moreno expressed confidence that the switch from an in-house security team to outsourcing to a professional firm will take place within the next two months, as it was one of the take-aways on the list of 11 steps Gressel had outlined for Carranza and his team to tackle before the next hearing.
When reached after the meeting, Carranza (pictured at a 2010 fundraiser for Moreno at The Fifty/50), said, “The communication with the neighborhood, alderman’s office, and district police has improved and will keep improving. We all agreed together we will solve all community issues where everyone is satisfied.”
The third hearing is scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 16th, 2012 at 2PM.
As previously reported, the city requires a minimum of three hearings for businesses involved with the deleterious impact public nuisance process. Jennifer Lipford, Director of Communications for the Dept. of BACP, told The Pipeline post-meeting that the hearings can continue for as long as they need to, and that in most cases the outcome is a win-win for both the community and the business.
When asked about the status of the suit brought against the city by Congress last month, involving a desire to get clarification on how the city defines ‘theater’ as it relates to an ordinance allowing the serving of alcohol only one hour before and after live performances and during intermission, Raines told The Pipeline that the case is “non-suited.”
“What does that mean?” we asked.
“It means that the city chose not to pursue it,” Raines replied.
Letter to the Community from Eddie Carranza (March 30)