NORTH LAWNDALE — Residents of two wards near Cinespace Chicago Film Studios are blasting two West Side aldermen for allowing the studio to regularly shut down streets and restrict parking for film and television shoots.
A meeting on the matter Thursday, which at times seemed on the verge of becoming out of control, took place at the Douglas Park Fieldhouse, 1401 S. Sacramento Dr., and was attended by Ald. Michael Scott (24th) and Jason Ervin (28th), as well as representatives from Cinespace, the Chicago Department of Transportation, the CTA and about 75 local residents.
Residents who organized the meeting said their main concern was blocked access to and from Western Avenue and street parking that is often restricted because of filming, along with what they said is a lack of communication from the studio and from the aldermen.
Chris Koster of the 24th Ward said he used his skills as an architect to develop a diagram to show what has happened to the area since Cinespace opened at 2621 W. 15th Pl.
“They basically created a wall eliminating access at 16th and 15th [streets],” Koster said. “It’s going to impact a lot of traffic inside this neighborhood that already has limited access to the east.”
Other residents pointed to pedestrian access to a nearby Metra staton on Western Avenue; access to Ambrose Plamondon School at 2642 W. 15th Place; rerouting of the 16th Street CTA bus and emergency vehicle access through the community.
They did not receive any answers Thursday, with the meeting time mainly dedicated to letting residents get their questions on the record. Ald. Scott said Thursday’s meeting would not be the last, although nothing has been scheduled as of yet.
Retired teacher Michael Kolos, 70, said he’s lived in the 24th Ward his entire life. Several years ago, he attended a meeting held by then-Ald. Ed Smith who sold Cinespace to residents by saying it would be a good neighbor.
“I would say it’s been the opposite,” Kolos said. “Cinespace has not become part of our community. They are trying to take over our community.”
Ald. Irvin was not having it, however. He said residents had a chance to attend four meetings regarding Cinespace in the past, but no one showed up.
“We’ve had four meetings in the 28th Ward in the last year and a half relating to this. I cannot account for the individuals who do not go to the meetings,” Irvin said.
Before the meeting, Cinespace CFO Mark Degnen and Cinespace Construction Coordinator Anthony Laurisch said they understand the frustration of the residents, but said the studio’s plan to create a closed campus has been a four-year process and has not been a secret.
“For a number of years we’ve had meetings that no one attended. Now that the plan is complete, we seem to be the big bad wolf, but we get it,” Degnen said.
He added that as the studio grew, it became necessary to close some of the streets.
Cinespace first announced plans to build a sprawling backlot to rival studios in New York and Los Angeles in 2014.
In 2015, Cinespace President Alex Pissios said they would also build streetscapes and offer backlot tours of the 52-acre studio, which runs from 16th Street to Ogden Avenue and from Washtenaw Avenue to a viaduct a block west of Western Avenue.
“I’m more proud than anything that we’ll be bringing people to North Lawndale,” Pissios said of his plan at the time.
Laurisch said that Cinespace “wants to be a good neighbor,” adding that while blocked access to and from Western Avenue may seem like an inconvenience, there is a positive to it.
“It reduces traffic in the neighborhood,” he said.
“There’s something to be said that yes, we can hop in our car and drive another 30 seconds to an open street, but from a safety standpoint, the pedestrians that need access to the Metra lines don’t have that access,” Koster said. “It’s now a mile long. There’s a lot of people on 16th Street, there are a lot of eyes on the street, so it’s a safe route and it’s a direct route. They cut off that, so our other option was 15th [Street] but they cut that. Now we have to go to Ogden which has less people and less visibility. Now we have to walk through a long, dark viaduct and it’s unsafe.”
Jessica Guzlas, a resident of the 24th Ward, echoed these concerns. She said restricting access to Western Avenue not only is inconvenient, it’s dangerous.
“I have been a victim of street crime. Now you’re talking about taking away my safe walking route to get to a bus on Western. This is hazardous to my health,” Guzlas said.
CDOT Deputy Commissioner Luann Hamilton said the city is trying to take resident concerns into consideration, but said most of the requests from Cinespace have been acceptable. She also addressed access to Western Avenue, saying that the closed portion of 16th Street near Western was given to Cinespace as a “grant of privilege,” which means the city can get it back if needed. She also said residents are able to walk through and get to Western from 16th Street.
The lone resident at the meeting who spoke favorably of Cinespace was Reginald Akeem Berry Sr., who said before Cinespace opened at the site of the former Ryerson Steel Company, the nearby stretch on Western Avenue was a haven for drugs and prostitution.
“They have hired a lot of community folks. We should give prosperity and change a chance,” Berry said.
Ald. Scott told the crowd that Cinespace has been responsible for a total of about 9,000 jobs, including many production jobs that have gone to area residents.
Chad King, a frustrated 24th Ward resident, urged fellow residents to look into legal options and said permission to grant Cinespace a closed campus was made by people outside the neighborhood.
“This deal was made by the City County by people who do not live here,” King said.
Cinespace has brought several films and television shows to the city, including Chicago Fire, Chicago PD, Chicago Med, Empire, Shameless, The Chi, South Side, Chicago Justice and Chiraq.
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