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Pilsen, Little Village, Back of the Yards

Pilsen Alderman, Neighbors Sue City And Former Alderman Over Giant Penny Whistle Liquor License Debacle

The lawsuit argues the city approved a liquor license for the bar and music venue without passing an ordinance to lift a tavern moratorium in place on Blue Island Avenue.

Left: Ald. Byron Sigcho Lopez (25th) at a City Council meeting. Right: The Giant Penny Whistle in 2019.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago; Mauricio Pena/ Block Club Chicago

PILSEN — Pilsen’s alderman and neighbors are suing the city and the former alderman, alleging officials wrongly issued a liquor license to the Giant Penny Whistle despite city rules prohibiting taverns in the area.

The lawsuit filed Monday by Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) and the Pilsen Neighbors Community Council argues the city approved a liquor license for the bar and music venue, 1854 S. Blue Island Ave., without passing an ordinance to lift the 1995 tavern moratorium in place on Blue Island Avenue from 16th Street to 19th Street.

Several city departments and officials, including former Pilsen Ald. Danny Solis, Deputy Mayor Manuel Perez, former city Corporation Counsel Mark Flessner, current Corporation Counsel Celia Meza, and the Giant Penny Whistle’s owners are also named as defendants.

Sigcho-Lopez’s lawsuit mirrors a January report from the the city’s Inspector General office, which said City Hall lawyers had no legal authority to settle a lawsuit with Giant Penny Whistle owners by granting it a liquor license, according to the Sun-Times. Sigcho-Lopez then said he’d push to revoke the tavern’s license and shut it down.

The liquor license debacle began in January 2019, just as the Sun-Times revealed then-Ald. Solis was wearing a wire for the feds. Solis, who went into hiding after the revelation, was expected to pass an ordinance to lift the tavern moratorium, but it never happened.

Instead, an ordinance was approved that allowed for liquor stores on the stretch, but not taverns, the Sun-Times reported.

Husband-and-wife duo Kacy and Bobby Middleton and partner Kevin Heisner of Heisler Hospitality planned to open the Giant Penny Whistle in summer 2019 in the old Tito’s Hacienda storefront.

“On the North Side, they have all these smaller venues like Empty Bottle, the Hideout, and we really don’t have that down here,” Bobby Middleton said at the time. “We have Thalia Hall but they are too big, and some bands can’t fill the place. There’s Honky Tonk, but they are a bit too small.”

Some neighbors didn’t want the tavern moratorium lifted, arguing taverns attracted crime and problems to Pilsen, according to the lawsuit. Sigcho-Lopez, a frequent critic of Solis, was elected alderman in April 2019. He met with neighbors about the tavern moratorium in October 2019 and sided with residents, blocking the Giant Penny Whistle from opening, according to the lawsuit.

Perez, of the Mayor’s Office, attended the meeting, which the freshman alderman said he thought was an attempt to pressure him into siding with the Giant Penny Whistle’s owners, the lawsuit states.

After Sigcho-Lopez made it clear he wouldn’t overturn the tavern moratorium, politically connected consultant John Fritchey sent a letter to Ald. Michelle Harris (8th), a member of the city’s Zoning Committee, trying to get her to introduce an ordinance to lift the moratorium and override Sigcho-Lopez, but it didn’t work, according to the lawsuit.

The Giant Penny Whistle owners then sued the city, saying they’d invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into the bar because Solis had assured them he’d lift the moratorium, according to the Sun-Times.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration and  then-Corporation Counsel Flessner agreed to settle the case in December 2020 by allowing the Giant Penny Whistle to open, the Sun-Times reported, calling the failure to lift the tavern moratorium an “administrative error.”

In the lawsuit, neighbors Tylor Dunnican, Anna Ramos, Kelly Clark and Douglas Howard allege the tavern’s opening has led to “excessive noise pollution, chronic sleep deprivation, violence, crime, and filth.”

The Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection also failed to send legal notice of the change to neighbors within 250 feet of the bar, the lawsuit alleges.

The Giant Penny Whistle owners could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.

“The City has not yet been officially served with the complaint through the proper legal channels. Upon receipt, the City will review the complaint and will have no further comment as the matter is now in litigation,” Department of Law spokesperson Kristen Cabanban said.

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