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In Pilsen, Giant Penny Whistle tavern’s opening a sign of alderman’s rift with Lightfoot

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration OK’d the project despite a liquor license moratorium and opposition from neighborhood residents and Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez.

To settle a lawsuit, the city of Chicago granted the owners of The Giant Penny Whistle permission to open despite a liquor-license moratorium barring new taverns on that block.
To settle a lawsuit, the city of Chicago granted the owners of The Giant Penny Whistle permission to open despite a liquor-license moratorium barring new taverns on that block.
Mark Brown / Sun-Times

A new tavern named The Giant Penny Whistle opened recently in Pilsen.

It has a music venue that can accommodate up to 300 people and the original bar from the venerated McCuddy’s tavern once located outside Sox park.

The owners say they’ve carefully restored the old bar — at which Babe Ruth is said to have hoisted a few — after purchasing it from a McCuddy’s family member.

There’s just one problem: The Giant Penny Whistle’s owners were granted permission to open by Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration even though there’s a liquor-license moratorium that was voted in by neighbors more than 25 years ago that’s still in place.

The bar is in Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez’s 25th Ward. And he says he supports community leaders who want the moratorium enforced — and the bar shut down.

Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez.
Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez.
Pat Nabong / Sun-Times file

The dispute is the latest flashpoint in a widening rift between Sigcho-Lopez and Lightfoot over what he has taken to calling “community prerogative”— to distinguish it from the “aldermanic prerogative” that he and the mayor both campaigned against.

The complicated story of how they arrived at this juncture involves the messy final year in public office of Ald. Danny Solis, Sigcho-Lopez’s predecessor.

Solis is the alderman who turned FBI mole when confronted with his own alleged wrongdoing. He then went AWOL during the last four months of his term after his undercover work against others including Chicago City Council colleagues was unearthed by the Chicago Sun-Times in January 2019.

In hindsight, there seems little doubt Solis intended to lift the liquor license moratorium to allow owners Kevin Heisner and Robert and Kathrine Middleton to open The Giant Penny Whistle at 1854-56 S. Blue Island Ave. in a building that previously housed the long-shuttered Tito’s Hacienda.

It’s even more clear Solis never actually managed to get that accomplished before he left office on May 20, 2019.

Solis still had a year left on his term on May 24, 2018, when he met with Heisner to discuss plans to open the tavern, according to a lawsuit the owners filed against the city.

Former Ald. Danny Solis.
Former Ald. Danny Solis.
Brian Jackson / Sun-Times file

The owners say Solis promised to support their project and “take all necessary steps” to lift moratoriums that barred new liquor licenses for taverns or packaged liquor stores on Blue Island Avenue from 16th Street to 19th Street.

Those had been voted into effect decades earlier by locals worried about problems created by the high concentration of liquor establishments in their neighborhood, said Raul Raymundo, chief executive officer of The Resurrection Project.

But in their lawsuit, the owners said Solis told them their establishment would be “good for the community” and the next month wrote a letter backing the issuance of their building permit.

Lifting liquor-license moratoriums is a fairly simple matter. All it takes is for the city council to pass an ordinance doing so after first notifying any property owners who would be directly affected— in this case, those along Blue Island Avenue.

In November 2018, the owners say, Solis’ aides told them they had submitted the documentation to lift both moratoriums.

But council records show the proposed ordinance which Solis introduced Dec. 12, 2018, and that was passed on Jan. 23, 2019, dealt only with lifting the moratorium against opening new liquor stores — but not the ban on taverns.

The January council meeting happened to fall on the same day the story broke in the Sun-Times that Solis had secretly recorded conversations with Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th), who later was indicted on federal corruption charges.

Solis wasn’t at the council meeting that day. And he never attended another public meeting, though he did not resign. His 25th Ward aldermanic service office kept operating, though dealing with it was difficult with Solis’ whereabouts mostly unknown.

Despite all of this, the tavern project continued to advance. The city issued a building permit for its construction in February 2019, and the owners say they soon started work. City Hall later accepted their fee for a liquor license.

It wasn’t until May 28, 2019, that the owners say they learned the tavern moratorium had not been lifted.

By then, Sigcho-Lopez had taken office. He took a decidedly different approach than Solis had to projects he says could hurt the character of Pilsen. He has allied himself with groups that want to put the brakes on the gentrification they say is pushing out longtime neighborhood residents and businesses.

Sigcho-Lopez refused to lift the moratorium, siding with community leaders who had been involved in the original effort to impose it. He pointed out that Benito Juarez High School and the Rudy Lozano Branch Library are nearby, and so is a Head Start program.

The tavern owners filed suit against the city in Cook County circuit court in May 2020. They argue that they had relied on Solis’ promise and the city’s approval of its building permits and demanded that the city either lift the moratorium or pay them damages of $797,932 — the amount they say they had spent on construction and city fees.

On Dec. 4, 2020, City Hall’s lawyers signed a settlement, agreeing that the “controversy is the result of an administrative error” and authorizing the city liquor commissioner to issue the bar a liquor license.

Sigcho-Lopez said he was unaware the lawsuit had been filed, let alone settled, that he learned about it only when The Giant Penny Whistle opened for business two weeks ago and neighbors complained.

“We thought it was a dead issue, then, all of a sudden, we realize they’re open,” said Juan Soto of the Pilsen Neighbors Community Council.

Sigcho-Lopez said the Lightfoot administration had no legal authority to bypass the moratorium and should have consulted with him and community residents.

The Giant Penny Whistle tavern on Blue Island Avenue in Pilsen.
The Giant Penny Whistle tavern on Blue Island Avenue in Pilsen.
Mark Brown / Sun-Times

Officials with City Hall’s law department wouldn’t discuss the matter with me.

Kathrine Middleton, one of the owners, said The Giant Penny Whistle has gotten a “fantastically warm welcome” since opening.

“We hope we have a long relationship with the community,” Middleton said.

But Sigcho-Lopez, who’s also involved in a dispute with the Lightfoot administration over another Solis-era liquor licensee, isn’t looking for any relationship at all.