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Multiple gas station and convenience store owners across Chicago are calling on the City Council to investigate what they allege are mass shutdowns of their businesses as part of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s strategy to reduce violence.
At a news conference earlier this week, about 15 owners gathered at the shuttered Falcon Fuel station in the Wrightwood neighborhood on the South Side. They alleged that more than 25 gas station owners had been cited for minor building violations and were shut down by the city, and said that the closures have cost them thousands of dollars.
“Every time they come they have a different reason,” said gas station manager Mohsin Omer, whose brother owns Amstar gas station at 8950 S. Ashland Ave. on the South Side. “They’re only looking for reasons (to shut us down).” The city’s Buildings Department cited a microwave placed next to a coffee machine, changing pipes from plastic to metal in the bathroom and needing to extend the drywall as some of the reasons for the shutdown.
“Some stuff is reasonable,” said Omer, “but some stuff, it doesn’t even make sense.” He added that the city visited his business three times: after he had almost finished fixing the initial set of violations, they came back and gave him more things to fix, which included extending the drywall up throughout the building.
According to a release announcing the Monday news conference, the owners believe the closures are part of an effort by Lightfoot to discourage gang members from congregating in the areas where the stores are located, according to Hassan Nijem, president of the American Arab Chamber of Commerce.
Store owners are also claiming that Lightfoot is specifically targeting Arab American and Muslim store owners “for racist reasons,” said Nijem. The mayor’s office provided the following statement issued by the Buildings Department, while adding that the gas station owners’ complaints are allegations:
“The city has been working closely with gas station owners to ensure compliance with the municipal code,” according to the statement. “Two weeks ago, a deputy mayor as well as several senior departmental leaders from the Department of Buildings, Business Affairs & Consumer Protection, and the Chicago Police Department hosted a roundtable for these very businesses. As a follow-up to the requests from the business owners, the city is providing business liaison teams and code checklists to businesses to engage on affirmative compliance.”
Ald. Raymond Lopez, 15th, said Monday the inspections and shutdowns appear to be part of an effort by Lightfoot to fight crime. Lopez, who is frequently at odds with the mayor, added that he has reached out to a number of his colleagues about the gas station owners’ concerns regarding shutdowns.
“I guarantee you that we will be pursuing this with the Buildings Department, with the Police Department, and if we don’t get the answer we like, we will be introducing a resolution asking for hearings into this matter,” said Lopez.
Aysar Abushanab, manager of Falcon Fuel, said inspectors came July 23 and closed the station because of five safety violations: damaged or “unapproved” panels that could be unsafe if “an emergency disconnect is required”; non-waterproof fixtures and fittings in the cooler; issues with an emergency gas pump that could create risk of electrical injury and required a permit to fix; missing carbon monoxide detectors and fire extinguishers; aisles that were too narrow. Because of these violations, the building “poses an immediate danger ... and constitutes an imminent threat to the public at large,” according to the inspectors’ report.
Abushanab cited difficulties in navigating bureaucracy to reopen the store, which he says is still closed. “(I’ve) emailed, called, no one is answering,” he said.
Some gas station owners who spoke at the news conference have gas stations in Washington Park, Stony Island, Wrightwood and Brainerd, all on the South Side.
Many of the gas stations are in areas that have high crime rates. In Police District 22, where Omer’s gas station is located, there have been 74 shootings in 2021 through Sept. 6; and in Police District 8, where the news conference was held at Falcon Gas, there have been 101 shootings.
Store owners said that some of their stores have been closed for up to two months. They noted that many of the inspections happened on Fridays and they couldn’t contract electricians or other companies to come in and deal with the violations until the next business day on Monday.
Others, including Mohammed Abdallah who supplies gas to Falcon Fuel and owns three stations, alleged that inspectors appeared to come already having made the decision to shut the stores down. Like Omer, other owners said that when they have dealt with the list of violations, the inspectors return and give them a new list of violations.
A 20 notice, which encompasses violations where maintenance is required, and where store owners receive a warning notice; a 50 notice, which includes violations that aren’t determined to be dangerous and result in administrative hearings; and an 80 notice, which are threats involving “dangerous and hazardous” violations and are taken to circuit court.
Documents provided by Omer show that court action is being taken against the gas station, and nine of the gas station’s 33 violations listed are labeled dangerous and hazardous.
When it comes to fixing the violations and reopening, the process is arduous and filled with bureaucracy that delays reopening, the store owners added. This ranges from having to wait to get permits to fix some of the violations and difficulty finding contractors over the weekend, to no one picking up their phone calls. The window to call an area supervisor with questions is limited to between 9:30 and 11:30 a.m., according to a city document Omer received.
“Some businesses, they’ve been in business for 20 years and maybe more,” said Nijem. “We want to find out what’s going on, why they are doing this.”