GOLD COAST — The Gold Coast weed rush could go bust before it begins.
If either of two proposed pot shops open in the tony neighborhood, it will be over the objection of the two aldermen that represent the area.
Cresco Labs and PharmaCann held dueling community meetings on at 6 p.m. Thursday, pitching their dispensary plans to hundreds of neighbors. Both companies operate in multiple states, are headquartered in Chicago and are considered major players in the industry.
But that clout doesn’t outweigh opposition from neighbors, Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) said.
Hopkins and Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) plan to file a formal objection with the Zoning Board of Appeals opposing Cresco Labs’ plan to convert a shuttered Fifth Bird Bank branch at 29 W. Division St. into a weed shop.
Hopkins will also file an objection to PharmaCann’s proposed dispensary a few blocks away at 12-14 W. Maple St. Because the locations are within 1,500 feet of one another, only one would ever be allowed to open.
Hopkins said a “strong majority” of Gold Coast neighbors are opposed to the pot shops and blasted Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s cannabis zoning ordinance for not requiring all new dispensaries to go to City Council for approval, a move that curbs their aldermanic power.
“I think a lot of [the community’s opposition] has to do with existing crime,” he said. “People are not convinced a cannabis retail facility would solve the problem, they think it would make it worse.”
When neighbors don’t want something in their community, they expect their local alderman to stop it.
“…I don’t want the Mayor to take [that power] away from me and give it to a bureaucrat somewhere in the building at City Hall,” Hopkins said.
There’s a reason “you’re starting to see an increasing groundswell of opposition to Mayor Lightfoot’s efforts to reduce aldermanic authority,” he said.
Smith said the proposed weed dispensaries “aren’t the right fit” for the Gold Coast. Both dispensaries are in Hopkins’ ward but Smith’s ward also includes the Gold Coast.
Both aldermen said they are open to dispensaries opening elsewhere in their wards.
In a statement, a Lightfoot spokesman said the new regulations go far beyond the previous rules set out for medical dispensaries authorized by City Council in 2014. The Zoning Board Of Appeals process allows aldermen and the public to voice their concerns.
“Transparency and community engagement have been at the heart of our efforts since day one, which is why the City’s zoning regulations for dispensaries reflect the voices and input of not only community leaders, advocates and residents but also Chicago’s aldermen — with whom we worked in partnership to pass them into the city code,” the spokesman said.
If Gold Coast residents are concerned about crime, the true risk to the community is “keeping the illicit cannabis market viable,” said Jeremy Unruh, co-founder and director of regulator affairs at PharmaCann.
“The sky did not fall when these dispensaries opened their doors to medical patients five years ago. It didn’t fall two months ago when they began serving adult-use customers and it won’t fall if a responsible dispensary opens at 12 W. Maple later this year,” he said in a statement.
Charlie Bachtell, founder and CEO of Cresco Labs, said the company will still move forward with their application, although he would prefer to have the aldermen’s support.
“The opportunity for Chicago to have sort of a flagship store like ours in that location, it seems like it fits really well,” he said. “Hopefully the ZBA hearing goes our way.”
Neither company’s proposal is on Friday’s Zoning Board of Appeals agenda. The next meeting is March 20.
Cresco met with chorus of boos
More than 200 people showed up to Cresco Labs’ meeting at the Hilton, 198 E. Delaware, and it was tense from the jump.
Jason Erkes, spokesman for the company, started the meeting by saying he was aware there were supporters in the room, as well as others that “are scared” of a dispensary opening. That comment was met with a chorus of “boos.”
As Erkes and John Sullivan, a former prosecutor now working for Cresco, sought to dispel what they said are misconceptions about cannabis and whether dispensaries lead to an increase in crime, they were often shouted down by members of the crowd. Others pleaded: “let them speak.”
Sullivan said the dispensary would be well guarded by security and pledged to hire two off-duty police officers to patrol the area between the State Street Red Line station and the dispensary.
Many neighbors said they were concerned about crime anyway. Even if the dispensary itself were safe, neighbor Michael Ronzano said he worried the area would see an uptick in robberies.
“Clearly they see the danger when they’re providing armed guards outside — the danger of people with enormous amounts of money in their pocket, or when they leave they have marijuana in their pocket,” Ronzano said.
Erkes said the dispensary would replace a former bank branch, which he was “pretty sure are cash only” businesses.
Not everyone at the meeting was there in opposition to the dispensary. Many supporters clapped as the company read through stats they say prove pot shops don’t lead to an uptick in crime.
Karen Klutznick, a 57-year Gold Coast resident, said she is a medical cannabis patient and the drug has helped her. She told Block Club afterwards that she wants her neighbors to keep an open mind.
“I respect everybody’s position, I just know how it’s changed my life and those around me,” she said.
While Hopkins and Smith acknowledged the Zoning Board of Appeals is supposedly outside the influence of alderman and their prerogatives, they said they expect the board to be persuaded by their arguments.
“Our advice is based on community sentiment and based on a rational, logical argument,” Hopkins said.
Smith was measured in her criticism of the decision to take cannabis zoning outside the influence of aldermen.
“It was a compromise that was struck in City Council,” she said. “…Let’s look at what the ZBA does, because if they never turn down a location, that means it doesn’t work.”
“If we start to see the ZBA making decisions that contradict aldermanic recommendations, I think you’ll see a groundswell of support to make changes” to the cannabis ordinance, Hopkins said.
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