Saturday, January 26, 2008

City Planning, Windfall for Developers.

The Tribune provided an illuminating snapshot of zoning in Chicago versus other larger cities. Basically, developer wants to buy property to make extravagant condos + donations to aldermanic race = BIG condo on your front lawn.
The new, 8,200-square-foot mansion is by far the biggest house on the 1800 block of North Wood Street, leaving Fred Ehle's four-bedroom home next door in its shadow.

"I don't mind gentrification and development—I live in Bucktown—but it has gone out of control," Ehle said. "It's crazy. It's so obviously different than what the neighborhood was and still is."

Zoning rules had prohibited such a behemoth from going up on the block. But that was before the developer got a break from then-Ald. Ted Matlak (32nd). Two weeks after the developer applied for a lucrative "upzoning" so he could build a much bigger house, one of the developer's companies gave the alderman a $2,000 campaign contribution.

The real zoning code in Chicago is unwritten, but developers know it well: Changes in zoning go hand in hand with contributions to aldermanic campaigns.

Perhaps the phenomena of campaign coffers for zoning lenience is obvious to any Chicago politico, neighborhood activist, or longtime resident. But for fear of stating the obvious, papers often clam up when real corruption takes place. But I'm glad the Trib lied it out here.
It's a city where the council rubber stamps aldermen's wishes—rejecting just 15 requested zoning changes in a decade—and where almost half the zoning changes were concentrated in 10 of the city's 50 wards that are exploding with growth.
...City officials in the Zoning and Planning Departments review proposals and issue recommendations before aldermen vote. That review involves determining if new construction would be an "intrusion" to the neighborhood.

But aldermen pay little heed. City staff objected to about 40 percent of the zoning changes that the council approved over the last three years, city records show.

Ald. William J.P. Banks (36th), chairman of the City Council Zoning Committee, said the reality in the neighborhoods—as represented by the aldermen—is far more important than what city staff think about a zoning change application. He said the tradition of aldermanic prerogative in zoning is as strong as ever, but that he advises council members to run projects by their constituents first.

I have to say that I'm not surprised, but the "pay-to-lay" way of development is different from what I'm accustomed.

In Madison they passed an ordinance last year to restrict development that goes against the character of neighborhoods, creating "historic districts." Madison Ald. Tim Gruber faced strong opposition, nearly losing his District 11 seat because of neighbor disapproval of four-story condos, calling it too "high-rise" for them.

Granted, Madison is not your typical town when it comes to city governance either.

Back in Chicago, the "exposure" of developers paying alderman to build condos lends cred to the Humboldt Park No Se Vende! movement in my own neighborhood.

At the housing summit in November, residents demonstrated against the influx of "yuppies," condos, rising housing costs. Organizers for the Participator Democracy project related to me how resident's didn't necessarily have a problem with development, but they are being excluded from the fruits of development by being priced out of their neighborhoods, which severs the social ties that help the community fight crime and thrive economically.

One perk of gentrification is a tendency for lower crime in a geographic neighborhood. It's much easier for a city to move in new condos than to deal with underlying social dilemmas.

11 comments:

matthew said...

I'm not really sure I'm that actually democratic, but how various government structures function have always baffled me. Like, why for example, we allow juries of our 'peers' to determine when a Doctor has breached their standard of care, which requires expert knowledge nearly every single jury just doesn't have.


Zoning commissions have always bothered me in that the city hires experts (the planning commission) to study development and make recommendations. And the actual decisions are made by the City Council, which can completely ignore the opinion of experts, and are free to politicize the topic. I'm for accountability (urban planners aren't elected), but tying it to aldermatic races and the city council seems to me to create less accountability than just hiring experts to make the decisions in the first place.

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