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By Anna Lothson
In a half-mile stretch, there are three pawn shops on the Oak Park side of North Avenue from Ridgeland Avenue to just past Austin Boulevard. On the Chicago side there are two more.
The possibility of yet another has united Oak Parkers and Chicagoans in the Galewood neighborhood over an issue that's likely heading for a fight at Chicago's city hall.
Joe Graber and his wife Judith, along with a handful on North Avenue neighbors, traveled downtown Friday for a special hearing in front of a planning and urban development committee. After a few hours, the committee said it will not recommend the special use permit, but the final say is still up to the city's zoning board later this month.
Graber said representatives from EZ Pawn, a national retailer, a commercial real estate broker, an urban planner and a chairman from the bank that owns the property were present at the hearing. All spoke favorably about why the pawn shop was a good fit for the vacant space, but neighbors weren't buying it.
"They went on and on. They said there was no adverse effect on the neighborhood, that it was the greatest thing since sliced bread and it would generate income," Graber said. He doesn't agree.
About 50 people came to rally against the shop, and Graber figured those against would be dismissed by the committee. He was pleasantly surprised to hear after hours of testimony from each side that the commissioners sided with the neighbors.
"It was an amazing mix of people," Graber said. "I'm not sure if the committee was surprised or impressed that Oak Park was represented."
Graber said the Galewood residents were the main organizers but working across the suburban/city border was seamless.
"It was very smooth. It was a marriage made in heaven," he said. "They welcomed me with welcome arms. They are very concerned citizens over there."
Graber's worries that pawn shops don't promote business growth, but more importantly, they don't reflect the character and quality of the residents.
"We believe they have an adverse effect on the neighborhood," said the longtime Oak Parker, who has seen his once beloved street of food establishments and small businesses change for the worse. "We've seen a decrease in the quality of retail," he observed.
Oak Park attempted to improve North Avenue, Graber noted, but the initial plan of redoing Austin to Ridgeland got bumped in favor of the stretch from Harlem to Oak Park Avenue.
Graber also fears pawn shops attract thieves, promotes crime and increases the overall seediness of the street. An ordinance in Oak Park that passed after many back-and-forth discussions prohibits new pawn shops from opening, but there's nothing preventing another from opening across the street from the village.
Friday's hearing was to determine a recommendation for or against a special use permit to bring another pawn shop to the street, but the zoning board will weigh in on the matter later this month.
Local realtor Richard Blaurock, who leased two of the pawn shops on North Avenue, said generally he's not against the business per se, but putting competing businesses near each other doesn't promote healthy business growth.
"I'm certainly not against pawn shops, but I'm not in favor of too many of them in a concentrated area," he said. "But in my experience there is no adverse effect [from a pawn shop.]"
Cash American, for example, he said is one of his best tenants. There's a police substation in the area, and while it isn't always staffed, he does believe the presence helps. Historically speaking, he said Oak Park doesn't have as many issues as the Chicago side due to quick response time by Oak Park police.
But because Oak Park has significantly higher taxes for its businesses, retailers often opt to settle on the Chicago side, leaving Oak Park at a competitive disadvantage, Blaurock said.
Neighbors along the Chicago side, however, have come out in strong opposition to adding another pawn shop to the area, with most citing that it deters other businesses from wanting to move in and creates a negative perception of the neighborhood.
Larry Andolino, a municipal lawyer, provided an update to neighbors via a post on the neighborhood website Sunday. He said testimony from a former Chicago police officer indicated that shops led to increased crime. He also noted the transition the ward is undergoing. The neighborhood's aldermen also remain split on the matter.
Alderman Nicholas Sposato (36th Ward) is aligned with the neighbors, but Alderman Deborah Graham (29th) wrote a letter in support, according to Andolino's post. Neither alderman was available for comment.
Galewood resident David Throne has joined the bandwagon against the pawn shop because he wants to see Chicago stop businesses that don't promote healthy growth. He said realtors have come in and placed businesses that don't benefit those who live in the community.
"If we do not have legitimate businesses investing here and staying here, our real estate values and quality of living here will continue to plummet," he wrote on a community forum board. "The pawn shops and pay-day loan stores encourage poverty and increase crime. Our economy isn't dead yet. It's just broken and we can fix it."
He believes what the neighborhood needs is businesses that invest in the community and provide useful products to residents.
Thorne, who works in Internet marketing and promoting businesses, thinks pawn shops bring negative influences and possibly thieves to the neighborhood. Fly-by businesses like the hair salons, car washes and liquor stores, he said, have increased in the area. They come and go but don't provide necessary services for a community.
"These places just suck a community dry," he said by phone Tuesday. He is hoping the city will do more to help local food and retail businesses stay afloat.
A ruling on the application for the next possible pawn shop on North Avenue is expected later this month, but until then, Oak Park and Galewood residents said they'll do all they can to keep the community united and rallied.