Hotel scores permission to expand
Unionists livid as commissioners reverse their Jan. '08 decision
06/24/2009 10:00 PM
The Chicago Plan Commission approved a four-floor addition to the southwest portion of the Congress Hotel building along E. Harrison and a one-story addition to the hotel’s roof at its meeting last Thursday.
The $20 million expansion, which would increase the 14-story hotel’s current capacity by 56 rooms, in addition to adding a swimming pool, restaurant and health club on the roof, left local union members livid and a few commissioners claiming they had no choice but to give the hotel permission to expand.
Members of Unite-Here Local 1 have been striking the hotel since 2003, when management and Local 1 failed to come to terms on a new contract.
The hotel’s application returned to the Plan Commission pursuant to an order by Circuit Court Judge Sophia Hall, who directed the mayorally appointed body to reconsider the proposal they rejected back in January 2008.
In the original hearing, members of the commission claimed the Congress had not been maintained in a safe and sanitary condition, putting the hotel in violation of policy number 4 of the Lakefront Protection Ordinance. Judge Hall accused the commission of rejecting the application on irrelevant grounds, and ordered a rehearing.
The Congress strike, one of the longest running in the country, has garnered support from numerous politicians, including Gov. Pat Quinn and President Barack Obama, both of whom have appeared at picket lines alongside Local 1 members.
At the onset of the June 18 rehearing, Plan Commission chair Linda Searl addressed the judge’s order by stating that no repeated testimony on the strike — or on newly surfaced health and safety code violations against the hotel — would be considered.
Searl’s disclaimer was directed toward some 50 union members and advocates sitting in council chamber that afternoon. The protesters wore red bandanas in support of the striking hotel workers.
“We are aware of the ongoing labor dispute,” Searl said. “Personal opinion will play no role in today’s hearing.”
Heather Gleason, from the city’s Department of Zoning and Land Use Planning, testified in favor of the proposal. She said the hotel’s application was in full conformance with the Lakefront Protection Ordinance and had already passed the Commission on Chicago Landmarks safety review.
Gleason concluded that the development was appropriate, and suggested that the expansion would draw additional patrons to the hotel — an intimation that was met with vocal disapproval from union backers.
New rooftop additions, which would include “significant green roof elements,” would be barely visible from the street, said hotel attorney Bernard Citron.
Testifying against the proposal for the second time was Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd), a longtime supporter of the Local 1 strikers and one of many defendants named in the hotel’s lawsuit against the city.
The alderman called to question the personal safety standards of the application — an issue, he noted, that was relevant to the Lakefront Protection Ordinance. He cited code violations against the hotel regarding rodent and cockroach infestation, problems with hot water and several failed fire escape inspections.
Commissioner Patricia Scudiero said the Department of Buildings was currently addressing the hotel’s safety issues, and insisted that the violations were did not pose any imminent danger.
Alexandra Canalos, of Local 1, testified that the circumstances, outside of Hall’s order, had not changed since the commission’s 2008 decision.
“We did not ask you to vote against the expansion proposal because of the Congress’ labor record,” said Canalos, a researcher for the union who testified against the application at the original hearing.
“Instead, we pointed to the hotel’s record of violations, complaints, and lack of upkeep of the property,” she continued, arguing that these reasons should stand to warrant a second denial of the application.
But Searl deemed Canalos’ statements out of order, at which point she called for a motion on the application. This triggered the union supporters to chant “Shame on you!” throughout a five-minute recess during which security emptied the chamber.
Later, commissioners motioned to approve the application.
“I voted no last time ... but I’m going to vote for it today,” said commissioner Nancy Pacher. Her vote, she said, “was not to be construed as approval of how the owners treat the building.”
“I feel like my hands are tied,” she said.