Ald. Matt O’Shea rejects business compromise, but calls off vote on dollar store crackdown

A Dollar Tree store in Chicago stands behind a CTA bus stop. Proposed legislation would prohibit new and expanding “small box retailers” like dollar stores from being located “within one mile of an existing store … owned or managed by the same controlling person.”

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Far Southwest Side Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th) on Monday called off a showdown vote on his proposal to tighten regulations on Chicago’s 150 dollar stores after rejecting a proposed compromise floated by three prominent business groups.

As proposed, O’Shea’s legislation would prohibit new and expanding “small box retailers” from being located “within one mile of an existing store … owned or managed by the same controlling person.”

The Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, the Illinois Retail Merchants Association and the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce want to shrink — from one mile to 1,000 feet — the proposed bubble around dollar stores.

Under a compromise pitched by the business groups, owners would be required to secure a letter of support from local alderpersons and obtain a so-called “special use permit” from the Zoning Board of Appeals before they could open a new dollar store within that smaller 1,000-foot radius.

O’Shea called the proposal a “bogus stall tactic” and summarily rejected it.

“A dollar store every one-and-a-half blocks?” O’Shea said. “We’re short on grocery stores and pharmacies in neighborhoods all across the city, but we’re OK with dollar stores every block-and-a-half when they’ve proven to be bad neighbors and they’ve proven to be filthy operators and they’ve proven to be unresponsive to local government and communities begging for them to clean up their act?”

After using a parliamentary maneuver at last week’s Council meeting to postpone consideration of the proposed dollar store crackdown, O’Shea filed notice of his intention to seek a vote at this week’s Council meeting.

But that was before he realized the meeting Wednesday would be dominated by emotional debate about a resolution demanding a cease-fire in the war between Israel and Hamas.

“Wednesday is going to be a very heated and emotional meeting. I don’t feel it’s the right time to bring this very serious issue back up to the Council. My colleagues need to be focused on the issue at hand,” O’Shea said.

In touting their 1,000-foot compromise, the three business groups argued O’Shea’s version would “limit access to important goods for residents and hamper economic development” in South Side and West Side neighborhoods that “need it most.”

They also argued that the one-mile bubble “violates every free-market tenant and denies aldermen the ability to respond to the changing needs” of their individual wards.

“If you map out the city at a mile around existing stores, there would be almost no place to open,” Rob Karr, president of the retail merchants group, told the Sun-Times.

“Food deserts predate dollar stores and they came into neighborhoods where there was nothing,” Karr said. “For those neighborhoods that cannot attract a grocery store, these stores at least fill some basic needs. They are, in fact, meeting the needs of customers.”

Jack Lavin, president of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, said small box retailers like dollar stores “play a key role in neighborhood retail corridors” by providing “jobs and convenient affordable goods and services to neighborhood residents.”

Lavin argued a “one-size-fits-all approach” goes too far and only “adds to the city’s reputation as imposing burdensome regulations” on businesses.

“It’s not uncommon to have distance requirements. Liquor stores [and] cannabis have it. But this would be the first time you’re doing it on specific industry,” Lavin said. “Why do we want to restrict investment in neighborhoods when many neighborhoods need new investment?”

During a hearing last week that culminated in License Committee approval of his stricter ordinance, O’Shea portrayed dollar stores as poorly-maintained magnets for crime.

He described conditions including overflowing garbage dumpsters and litter-strewn parking lots, with tipped-over shopping carts and broken fences and light fixtures. He complained of “more unreturned phone calls from Dollar Tree than I can count” during his 13-year Council career and about “more than 40” colleagues who had received similarly cavalier treatment.

On Monday, Karr acknowledged there has been “anecdotal evidence” of some poorly maintained dollar stores. But if those “isolated incidents” are substantiated, Karr said there are “existing penalties for trash and enforcement, up to and including” revoking licenses.

 

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