Pot shop steps from Rush Street would be out of character with neighborhood, alderman, bar owners argue

Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse, located at 1028 N Rush St., is part of a coalition seeking to block a pot shop from opening in the Gold Coast. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

“Why would PharmaCann want to come here when the residents don’t like them?” said John Colletti, managing partner of Gibsons Restaurant Group.

With city officials primed to determine whether a pot shop can open in the middle of one of Chicago’s busiest nightlife districts, a coalition of neighbors has launched a campaign to delay a Friday vote on the proposal and ultimately keep legal weed out of their backyard.

Given the pushback from neighbors and business leaders in the Gold Coast, local Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) told the Sun-Times Monday that he’s already submitted a letter to the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals opposing the recreational pot dispensary that Loop-based PharmaCann hopes to open.

“The neighborhood is organized [and] active. Leaders have emerged,” said Hopkins. “It’s about as stirred up as I’ve ever seen it.”

The resistance comes four months after the Gold Coast Neighbors Association came out against PharmaCann’s location and another proposed pot store Cresco Labs is looking to open at 21-29 W. Division.

The coalition opposing PharmaCann’s plan — dubbed Stop Pot at 12-14 W. Maple — has raised a list of concerns about that location, including the likelihood for added congestion in the area and the proposed store functioning as a cash-only business like other weed shops in the state.

The group is also warning of the proposed store’s close proximity to Ogden International School. While city zoning rules prevent pot establishments from opening within 500 feet of a school, the coalition noted in a statement that PharmaCann’s new location is less than 550 feet from Ogden.

Hopkins agrees with opponents that the dispensary “is not a suitable use for this community. It is not in conformity with the character of the surrounding community.”

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PharmaCann hopes to open weed dispensary at 12-14 W. Maple.

Gibsons: ‘Residents don’t like them’

John Colletti, a member of the coalition and the managing partner of Gibsons Restaurant Group, believes the ZBA will ultimately side with his group, though he doesn’t understand why PharmaCann doesn’t simply pursue a location that’s less contentious.

“Why would PharmaCann want to come here when the residents don’t like them?” said Colletti, whose flagship bar and steakhouse, and sister business Hugo’s Frog Bar, is just steps from PharmaCann’s planned dispensary.

Asked why the presence of a pot shop is so alarming in a neighborhood celebrated for its nightlife and drinking culture, Colletti said he and other proprietors have spent years managing intoxicated customers.

“If you look at the street right now as it is, there’s some of the finest restaurants in the country right here by us who serve properly and watch the customers, care for the customers,” said Colletti, whose restaurant routinely ranks among the top 10 in sales for independent restaurants nationwide.

The coalition is urging the ZBA to delay PharmaCann’s virtual hearing until an in-person meeting can be held, claiming the board is “rushing” the process.

PharmaCann spokesman Jeremy Unruh said the claim that the process is being rushed “is more of the same smoke-and-mirror logic that we’ve seen from this splinter group since before the COVID-19 shutdown.”

“The objectors have had almost half-a-year to prepare for the upcoming hearing, and any suggestion that the process in unfair or hasty is misplaced,” added Unruh.

In fact, the race to open recreational weed stores in Chicago has been significantly delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. PharmaCann was initially slated to appear before the ZBA in March, but Unruh said that hearing was pushed back and only rescheduled in recent weeks.

‘We are in unchartered territory here’

After Mayor Lori Lightfoot barred pot sales in much of the downtown area, cannabis firms began prospecting in pricy, retail-friendly areas just outside the so-called “exclusion zone.” But as companies sought to set up shop in hot retail corridors in the Gold Coast and River North, some faced opposition from neighborhood groups and residents.

Under the statewide legalization law, existing operators of medical dispensaries were given the opportunity to also sell recreational weed at those stores and open additional locations to exclusively serve adult-use customers. In order to earn a state license for those new stores, pot firms must first get local zoning approval.

Despite pushback from Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) and the River North Residents Association, the ZBA granted MOCA Modern Cannabis special-use zoning approval in March for a recreational dispensary at 213-232 W. Ohio. The decision drew a swift rebuke from Reilly, who tweeted that Lightfoot’s appointed zoning board “ignored overwhelming neighborhood & aldermanic opposition.”

Ahead of that meeting, Hopkins and Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) said that Lightfoot’s efforts to diminish aldermanic authority have effectively left them on the sidelines of the pot zoning process. On Monday, Hopkins noted that Friday’s ruling by the ZBA would serve as “a test of the weight of aldermanic opinion on an issue like this that almost used to be exclusively decided based on the prevailing support or opposition of the alderman.

“We are in unchartered territory here.”

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