Ald. Proco Joe Moreno (1st) on Wednesday denied using threats or intimidation to help “his friends” at the now-shuttered Double Door music venue in Wicker Park.
Moreno also denied using his iron-fisted control over zoning against the owner of the building at 1572 N. Milwaukee. He said his only motivation is to make certain that residents of the trendy neighborhood have control over what goes into the now-shuttered club where the Rolling Stones once played.
“It’s community control. … It’s to have community input in what we want in our neighborhood. … We’ve done it before in other buildings. It’s not to punish anyone,” Moreno said.
“It’s…to make sure the community has input into what goes into this historic neighborhood. I’ve been there 20 years now. [It] was not like it is now. The community did a lot of work to get it to where it is and we want … input to what goes into this very, very important corner of the district.”
Pressed on whether he had ever threatened landlord Brian Strauss, whose family owns the building, Moreno said he had not. He called the federal civil rights lawsuit filed by Strauss “frivolous” and “weak.” He claimed that Strauss went through four attorneys before finding a lawyer who would take the case.
“For two years, he has not brought me one tenant. Not one person that said, ‘I’m interested in this and this is my concept.’ That’s what it’s about,” Moreno said.
Strauss is “somebody [who] has had his building on the market for two years at a price of $10 million and has had only one offer that’s close to that and they withdrew because he was so dishonest with them.”
The lawsuit filed last week accuses Moreno of using his power over local zoning as a weapon against the building owner. It also names the city and the City Council’s Zoning Committee as defendants and seeks more than $9.6 million in damages.
The building has been owned by the Strauss family for nearly 40 years. In 2015, Strauss claimed Door Door had violated its lease, triggering a legal battle that concluded with the club being shuttered and the locks being changed earlier this year.
According to the suit, the building has been zoned as a B3-2 property since 1974, which allowed the owners to rent the street-level space as commercial property.
Strauss claims Moreno “had a personal and financial relationship” with Double Door’s owners and introduced a zoning change in April 2015 before the zoning committee “in an effort to keep his friends at Double Door as tenants in Strauss’s building.”
The zoning change, from B3-2 to B3-1, would have allowed Strauss fewer options as to who he could rent the space to, constituted illegal spot zoning and was meant to significantly reduce the building’s property value, the suit said.
In a private meeting on Feb. 8 at City Hall — two days after Double Door was evicted — Strauss said Planning and Development Commissioner David Reifman tried to broker a deal for Strauss to sell the building to Double Door’s owners — a suggestion rejected by both parties.
At that meeting, Strauss said Moreno used “subtle threats” to warn him that if he did not allow Double Door back into the space, he would be subject to a long and expensive zoning process and that the space could remain vacant for years.
On Feb. 25, according to the lawsuit, Moreno and Strauss were involved in a videotaped confrontation outside the former Double Door location in which Moreno told him, “I’m gonna have inspectors in here on a daily basis, you watch.” Also: “It’s gonna be an empty building with no income for you or your family.”
Wednesday, Moreno said: “Yeah, we got in an argument. I knew there was a videotape. … Watch the whole video and you can make the judgment yourself” that no threats were made.
Due to the potential downzoning, Strauss said a potential buyer of the building for $9.6 million walked away from the deal, according to the suit. Struass said he’s been “conservatively” losing $35,000 a month in rent for the former Double Door space since March 1 as potential renters will not sign a lease because the building’s zoning could be downgraded.
As recently as June, Strauss said, Moreno proposed to downzone the property to RS-3, typical of areas with detached houses on individual lots.
“Instead of rejecting both of Moreno’s downzoning proposals regarding Strauss’ property, neither of which offers any benefit to the public, the zoning committee assisted and continues to assist Moreno in his vindictive and irresponsible attack against an innocent land owner who refused to let Moreno’s evicted friends back into the building,” the suit alleges.