Credit: Justin Laurence/Block Club Chicago

BUCKTOWN — A recreational cannabis dispensary planned for the Wicker Park-Bucktown border is moving forward despite the objections of a local neighborhood group.

Verano Holdings want to open a Zen Leaf dispensary at 1720 N. Damen Ave., previously home to a Marc Jacobs store.

On July 22, the zoning of the property was changed with the approval of Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) to accommodate a cannabis dispensary.

Waguespack deferred the zoning change in May after the Wicker Park Committee, a neighborhood group that gives recommendations on community projects, opposed the pot shop, saying there were insufficient social equity commitments.”

Zen Leaf has been working with the Cannabis Equity Coalition of Illinois to commit to equitable hiring and purchasing practices. Last month, Zen Leaf announced it signed a community benefits agreement with the coalition that promises it will hire half of its workers from communities most affected by the war on drugs and make contributions to community organizations above what state law requires.

Wicker Park Committee president Kyle Sneed said the group rejected the dispensary plan knowing the basic parameters of that agreement. His group planned to withhold support for any dispensary in Wicker Park until so-called social equity dispensary licenses were awarded and the companies were given a chance to compete for prime locations.

The state law that legalized recreational weed allowed existing medical dispensaries to convert to recreational/medical shops and open a second recreational-only store. The state was set to award 75 new dispensary licenses aimed at increasing minority ownership in the industry on May 1, but those licenses were delayed indefinitely because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Credit: Justin Laurence/Block Club Chicago

Now, they may be awarded in two waves, with the bulk of the licenses not expected to be awarded until at least September.

Zen Leaf “got to jump the line and they don’t have any competition for the spot they want to open because the social equity applicants” haven’t been awarded licenses, Sneed said. “The first mover advantage is huge. … There’s going to be a huge amount of wealth that’s generated from this.”

Waguespack said he weighed the pushback from the neighborhood group against support from other neighbors — including the Bucktown Community Organization — and the need to utilize the building to bring increased revenue for the city when making his decision to support the zoning change.

“We were looking for something to activate that part of Damen because we’re losing a lot of businesses and cannabis seems appropriate to a lot of people,” he said. “For me there were a lot of issues there with holding something up just so there might be a potential business sometime in the future.”

The zoning approval caught both Sneed and former Wicker Park Committe president Teddy Varndell off guard. Varndell, who said he was speaking for himself and not the neighborhood group, thought the zoning change was a big prize and more should have been asked of the company to get it.

“We didn’t feel there was a big enough social equity component, and it wasn’t doing enough for people who had, you know, the victims of the war on drugs or non-generational capitalists, to make it worthwhile for the community to give them essentially a monopoly over that big stretch of turf.”

“I’m truly disappointed in Waguespack. He and I have a long history and I’m surprised he would usher through the upzoning without consulting his constituents and neighborhood group,” he said.

Waguespack said he held a number of community meetings on the project and last spoke with Sneed a few weeks before the zoning change.

Akele Parnell, an attorney who represents the Equity Coalition, said anyone concerned about a lack of equity in the industry should seek out support from organizations that have been leading the effort for years.

“We’ve been looking for allies, especially in places like Wicker Park. … We just haven’t connected with them,” he said. “It would be great if they would connect with the social equity advocates and organizers who are out here doing this kind of work, and then we can be on the same page, you know, of how best to push forward and use the leverage we do have to advance social equity.”

Parnell said his group is seeking community benefits agreements with all dispensaries opening in Chicago because it’s “the best model that we’ve come up with to advance equity right now while we wait for social equity applicants to come online.”

“These plus ones are happening, that ship has already sailed, we just want to secure as much economic opportunities for Black and Brown folks and people harmed by the war on drugs as we can,” he said. “The CBA currently seems like the best way to do that, this is not intended to wave a magic wand and now these companies are equitable.”

In addition to the hiring standards, Zen Leaf’s community benefits agreement commits it to providing a starting wage of $16 an hour, contributing a $125,000 grant to community organizations and buying at least 10 percent of its product from minority- or women-owned businesses or companies that obtain a social equity license.

The Cannabis Equity Illinois Coalition also signed a community benefits agreement with Nature’s Care Company, owned by Acreage Holdings, for a dispensary planned for the West Loop in March. They have committed to advocate for companies who sign an agreement when they go before the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals, which grants special use permits needed to open a pot shop. 

State law prevents dispensaries from opening within 1,500 feet of an existing dispensary, but Waguespack said there will be opportunities for new entrepreneurs to open in the area. He and Paul Stewart, a cannabis advisor to Mayor Lori Lightfoot, have explored ways to be “proactive to allow any new social equity firms” to set up shop in Wicker Park, he said.

If another dispensary wants to open in Wicker Park, Parnell suggested the Wicker Park Committee join forces with the equity coalition to push for creating as much social equity as possible.

“We’d love to sit down and talk with them and think about ways to ensure that social equity applicants are able to access the most lucrative locations in Wicker Park,” he said.

Before submitting an application for the state license to open the dispensary, Zen Leaf must head to the Zoning Board of Appeals for a special use permit. The zoning board requires at least three community meetings before it will hear a cannabis application. Sneed said his group will oppose the dispensary going forward.

“We’ll make sure our voices are heard on it,” he said.

Verano Holdings could not be reached for comment.