At an April meeting in Norris Square, 7th District City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez and a few buttoned-up city planners stood at the front of the room for what seemed to be a run-of-the-mill discussion about an arcane zoning matter.
Soon, though, the meeting turned volatile. There was shouting. A man was removed in handcuffs. Accusations were lodged against Sánchez, who launched a few right back.
It was the boiling point of a face-off that had been brewing behind the scenes for years between Sánchez and Pat DeCarlo, the executive director of the Norris Square Civic Association (NSCA) and, by most accounts, the central figure in the narrative of Norris Square.
What brought the feud out into the open was a debate over NSCA's nearly $10 million redevelopment of the St. Boniface Church complex at Diamond and Mascher streets. DeCarlo envisions a neighborhood anchor: a day-care center, a school, a community center and 15 units of co-op housing. Sánchez believes the plan is flawed and that it should be properly vetted by the community, and has intervened with a bureaucratic hurdle: a proposed remapping of zoning in the area.
The councilwoman had initially insisted the zoning change — converting neighborhood properties from R10 (multifamily dwellings) to R10A (single-family only) — stemmed from a desire to curb development pressures. But she's since acknowledged to City Paper that her need to have "a bigger say" in the St. Boniface development was a motivator. The remapping could potentially send the project through a community review process for a zoning variance.
"My job is accountability," Sánchez says. "I would not have wanted to have this kind of public debate about their utilization of [taxpayer] resources and their capacity, but it comes with the territory."
She says there's no one else who can really speak out in the neighborhood, given that NSCA holds the Neighborhood Advisory Council (NAC) contract for the area, is the area's chief developer and also serves as its civic association handling zoning matters. (The NSCA doesn't have published zoning bylaws, and doesn't leave zoning up to a community vote; decisions are made by a zoning committee appointed by NSCA's NAC committee.)
Crossing DeCarlo — possibly the most powerful force in the neighborhood — is no simple matter, according to Victor Negron, a committeeman in the area and an NSCA member. Residents and businesspeople don't want to speak out against Sánchez either, so they're caught in the middle. "There is this sense of intimidation," says Negron. People, he explains, "are worried about talking. They fear retribution, like their lives are going to be made horrible if they say anything against Norris Square Civic or if they say anything against the councilwoman. It's just this fear."
Evidently, Sánchez was intimidated, too — for years. She knows it looks suspicious to speak out on a project that is, in fact, across the street from her house. That appearance of a conflict was what "stopped me from acting sooner. I wish I had acted sooner." (As expected, NSCA has pointed out the proximity repeatedly.)
Still, she's been trying to have her say at St. Boniface for a long time, ever since DeCarlo first won a $5 million federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP2) grant, and later secured $5 million in matching state Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program funds.
Sánchez supports the day care, school and community center, but has her own vision for how the residential component could be deployed. She says there are 1,700 vacant city-owned properties in the NSCA area that could be rehabbed.
"It's about the overutilization of funding in one spot when the impact could be broader," she explains. "The fact of the matter is they could do 30 or 40 units that are vacant in their footprint and really leverage that money in addition to providing more local jobs."
The timing is terrible, as even Sánchez admits. NSCA director of real estate development Maria Camoratto says the turmoil has put them in danger of losing their funding, as NSP2 grant administrators watch warily. The grant, if unused by February, expires.
But critics say Sánchez is right to question the development, even at this late hour.
For one thing, residents complain that NSCA's own properties have had plenty of problems — vacant land left uncared for, damaged rental units left unrepaired.
"It's a mess. Neighbors complain all the time," says Negron of the poorly maintained NSCA properties near his home on the 2100 block of North Hancock Street.
DeCarlo told CP she hadn't been made aware of any complaints until Sánchez brought them up.
Iris Lopez, a community activist and former NSCA board member, finds that hard to believe, saying NSCA's 21-unit Los Balcones development is practically infamous. "The whole neighborhood knows that the [NSCA] tenants complain all the time," she says.
She describes leaks that have gone unrepaired for years, a problem with a roof that took seven years to fix. "How is that creating community? If you're not taking care of it, you might as well be a slumlord."
The NSCA owns dozens of properties in the area, and has a reputation for sitting on some of them, allowing them to drag down blocks while accruing value — kind of like what a speculator might do. Negron says his neighbors' group had to get L&I to demolish an NSCA property on Hope Street, after NSCA refused to seal or maintain it.
DeCarlo says NSCA's reputation on vacant land is unfair, that people confuse it with other neighborhood groups. She presented CP with a usage plan for each of the 20 vacant lots and buildings NSCA owns.
She says everything she's done has been at the request of the community. But she also has her own vision for the neighborhood — and it doesn't involve gentrification.
Negron and Sánchez say the singularity of that vision results in a lack of transparency, and that petitions and surveys are done by picking and choosing participants, disenfranchising those who disagree or manipulating the answers. Outside the meeting with Sánchez, NSCA was distributing fliers that seem to support that thesis. They inaccurately claimed the zoning change would make it illegal for people to rent space to their relatives, tearing families apart. "It's about the manipulation of folks, versus the education of folks," Negron says.
NSCA may be confident in their neighborhood support — but they still rushed to obtain their zoning permit ahead of the proposed remapping, thereby possibly avoiding the community zoning process. Now, whether Sánchez will be able to push the remapping through — or to kill that zoning permit — may show where the power really lies.