Community group celebrates, looks ahead

By Patrick Smith

First Ward Alderman Bob Fioretti came to the South Loop Neighbors annual meeting to thank the group for all of the work it does in the community.

He spoke briefly near the beginning of the Dec. 9 event, which was a celebration of the past year, something of a renaissance year for the neighbors. The meeting at Grace Place, 637 S. Dearborn St., was also a preview of the year ahead for the group and included the election of new members. A few of those new members promised a greater focus on the burgeoning community of college students in the South Loop neighborhood.

“They’ve done a lot to revitalize the neighborhood and keep people informed,” Fioretti said of the South Loop Neighbors. “It’s been great to work with the board here.”

Vice President for Memberships Helen Kaplow gave the 40 or so community members in attendance a review of the highlights of 2009.

The first highlight was the relatively high turnout on a particularly cold and blustery Chicago night.

“It’s so heartening to see so many people on such a terrible night,” Kaplow said. “I’m impressed when anyone braves the cold weather to come. It’s really bad out there.”

In what Kaplow described as a similarly pleasant surprise, she described an early membership-drive event early last year that earned the neighbors 60 new members, far exceeding the group’s expectations.

That, Kaplow said, was important because the group needed to raise awareness and support after being practically dormant for a few years before.

“This has been a really stellar year,” Kaplow said. “People really want there to be a South Loop Neighbors.”

Fioretti was also happy the group was so active in 2009, squeezing in an appearance before rushing off to “three more events” that night.

“I just really wanted to be here,” he said.

Along with maintaining the current leadership, save for two board members who have resigned and one who chose not to run for reelection, the Neighbors elected five new board members.

Those five Neighbors, Nicole Batch, Emily Colantino, Jacqi Greene, John Ro and Marie Balice Ward, ran the gamut from long-time residents and newcomers looking to get involved.

Ward, a new board member who has been living in the South Loop for 12 years, said she was most interested in involving “the student body that is growing by leaps and bounds” in neighborhood activities.

Ro echoed Ward’s sentiments, highlighting the community’s changing demographic. He also said he was most interested in growing the arts and culture community in the South Loop.

“I really hope that I can help the young, working professionals and students in the area form a community,” Ro said.

Ro, who has lived in the South Loop for two years, also said his wife was looking to open a new pastry shop in the area, but as Fioretti and Neighbors President Dennis McClendon pointed out, plans for new development are a lot easier to come by than funding for those projects.

“When someone comes into my office with plans for development, I say “Show me the money,’” Fioretti said.

McClendon touched on the same issue in his review of development in the area.

Among the projects on hold are a new hotel proposed for the northeast corner of Balbo and Wabash avenues and the retail section of the new Roosevelt Collection of condominiums, 1440 S. Indiana Ave. The opening of those new stores should be expected within a year, according to McClendon, but he said he thought the hotel project would be on hold for quite some time.

One new construction project that will get underway in 2010 is the Congress Parkway streetscape improvements, which McClendon said would begin “at the start of the next construction season.”

The streetscaping will be an improvement of Congress from Michigan Avenue to Wells Street. According to McClendon, drivers should “expect traffic slowdowns and traffic barrels through 2011.” But he said that the traffic troubles will be worth it.

“When it gets done it should be pretty amazing,” McClendon said.

Near the end of the event, the Columbia Community Choir performed for the audience. Kaplow said she was “really excited” about the performance. The Columbia Community Choir is a choir that combines Columbia students with people who live in the community.

“It’s great being part of a community group,” Kaplow said. “I can just call up the community choir and ask them to come give a free concert.”