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Zoning board approves 5 recreational pot shops, setting stage for race to win state licenses

Ald. Brendan Reilly lashed out on Twitter at what he called an “incompetent” board “full of connected bureaucrats.” In approving an application over his objection, he said, the board ignored “overwhelming” neighborhood opposition.

Representatives for cannabis company MedMen appear in front of the Zoning Board of Appeals on March 6, 2020.
Representatives for cannabis company MedMen appeared in front of the Zoning Board of Appeals Friday.
Tom Schuba/Sun-Times

Chicago’s ongoing “green rush” culminated Friday in a whirlwind zoning meeting in which all five prospective pot shops earned local approval, paving the way for another race to win three coveted state dispensary licenses.

Cresco Labs, MOCA Modern Cannabis, Windy City Cannabis, MedMen and Nature’s Care were all granted special-use zoning permits following the 11-hour meeting of the Zoning Board of Appeals.

As things heated up ahead of the first-of-its-kind meeting, some applicants burned out and the agenda was whittled from nine applicants. In addition to security and community considerations, all the firms faced stiff questions over plans to bolster minority participation and create social equity.

A battle had brewed for weeks in River North, where a group of applicants vied to open four shops within blocks of each other. Because state law requires dispensaries to be 1,500 feet apart and the proposed sites were clustered so closely, only one winner was expected to prevail and earn a precious state license.

After two of those firms dropped out, the stage was set for a David-versus-Goliath match-up.

Cresco Labs — a leading Loop-based firm operating in multiple states — hopes to open at 430-436 N. Clark St., while MOCA — a standalone Logan Square pot shop owned by two brothers — is looking to set up shop a few blocks away, at 214-232 W. Ohio St.

While Cresco garnered strong community support, MOCA ran into a buzz saw of opposition.

Mike Riordan, president of the River North Residents Association, rattled off a litany of issues his group had with MOCA’s proposed site: “a complicated mess” of traffic in the parking lot; the shop could attract “unsavory clientele”; and it needed round-the-clock security. Concerns over MOCA’s security were highlighted when more than $200,000 was taken from the firm’s existing shop in a daring burglary days after recreational pot became legal.

During the meeting, a spokeswoman for Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) said Reilly concluded the proposed address is “not a responsible location for a dispensary” based on the residents’ opposition. Meanwhile, Reilly and Riordan’s group both penned letters supporting Cresco’s proposed location.

MOCA ultimately altered its plan during a behind-the-scenes meeting with Riordan, agreeing to employ 24-hour security, ditch a plan for outdoor lines and accept debit cards.

Though Riordan said he couldn’t withdraw his group’s recommendation without consulting with the members of the association, MOCA’s petition was unanimously approved by the ZBA. One member voted down Cresco’s application.

Following the meeting, Reilly lashed out on Twitter at the zoning board for approving MOCA’s application over his objection.

“The Mayor’s appointed ZBA just ignored overwhelming neighborhood & aldermanic opposition to a Cannabis License in River North and they awarded it anyway,” Reilly wrote.

“Enjoy those ‘reforms‘ Chicago! We have an incompetent ZBA full of connected bureaucrats.”

The Sun-Times reported Wednesday that two other aldermen, Brian Hopkins and Walter Burnett, said Lightfoot’s efforts to diminish aldermanic authority have effectively left them on the sidelines of the pot zoning process.

Another fight is playing out in Goose Island, where Los Angeles-based MedMen and Windy City Cannabis are competing for a single state license. MedMen’s planned shop is located at 1001 W. North Ave., while Loop-based Windy City wants to sell weed at 923 W. Weed St.

The firms battling for licenses now must build out their shops and pass a state inspection. The first in each race to do so will be awarded some of the first recreational permits in the city.

The final applicant, Rolling Meadows-based Nature’s Care, wants to open a dispensary at 810 W. Randolph St.