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The Battle to Keep Elm Street Dry

By Kevin Martinez and Laura Evans

Posted: Monday, Jan. 6, 2014

A back and forth dispute has broken out on the North Side pitting Gold Coast residents against a local wine store.

When Just Grapes first opened in 2013, it left the residents living on Elm and Division Streets crying foul.

Jeff Jarmuth, attorney and Gold Coast resident, said the community between State Street and Lake Shore Drive has been dry (meaning no alcoholic businesses), since Nov. 2, 1982.

In the early 1980’s, Lou Wolf, one of Chicago’s notorious landlords, owned a bar located on the corner of State and Division, which caused problems with the residents.

“There was always a lot of noise being made late at night,” said DeeDee Spence, another one of the Gold Coast’s residents, “You could hear the people who were leaving the bar drunk hanging out in the alleys and breaking bottles.”

The community banned together and forced Wolf and his bar out of the area. A furious Wolf attempted to file a lawsuit against the city for denial of due process but lost the case just after losing his liquor license.

Jarmuth explained that under the Illinois Liquor Act of 1934, a precinct could vote in a local option election to make their entire precinct dry. After a precinct has been voted dry, no new liquor licenses can be issued and all current licenses must be revoked.

In order for a precinct to be dry, it needs 25 percent of registered voters within that precinct to sign a petition to be on the ballot. After making it onto the ballot, there is a need for 50 percent of the precinct to vote to make the community dry.

However, there is a provision in the law that allows an annexed area to file a petition in order to make it wet again.

“The annexed area must be part of an area that has been voted dry and has been moved to another precinct,” explained Jarmuth, “In order to reverse the process, there must be 66 percent vote from the residents within the annexed area.”

More recently, in 2008, there was an attempt to build a hotel on the corner of State and Division. The residents, including Spence, attended a local town meeting in order to fight the hotel.

Spence claims the only reason the hotel was not built was because one of the residents stood up and said, “You do know that block is dry don’t you.”

Because of unforeseen precinct changes, Just Grapes was able to open up in the space left vacant by a flower shop.

Initially, Jarmuth believed a mistake had been made after seeing a sign for a liquor license application after the flower shop closed.

Jarmuth said he had made a call to the Alderman Brendan Reilly but instead spoke to one of his workers about the area being dry. He was informed that the area had indeed become wet again yet the petition only had four out of the 14 required signatures.

On July 1, Jarmuth filed a lawsuit against the city in Federal Court for what he believes is illegal precinct change.

Although the wine store just recently opened this fall, the building where Just Grapes is located will be destroyed some time this winter in preparation for a new condominium building by the building’s new owners. It is still unsure what will become of the wine store.

“There’s a clause in his contract that will let him come back if that’s what he chooses,” said Jarmuth, “Whether it comes back or not depends on my lawsuit.”

No matter what Just Grapes decides to do, the residents would like nothing more than to keep a pleasant living area similar to what they currently have.

“We’d like to keep the character of the neighborhood as close to what we have as as possible,” said Jarmuth, “We’re not gonna get another four story, brick condominium or apartment building. A lot of people too, were against any sort of commercial building like a hotel, which would significantly increase the traffic on our street.”

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