Dan Mihalopoulos and Robert Becker, Chicago Tribune
Who calls the shots in your backyard? Not you.
In a system city officials call a national model, aldermen collect campaign donations from developers. Developers benefit from looser building rules approved by aldermen. And residents?
City politicians call Chicago a national model for how to involve the public in real estate development debates. But the view from the streets of the city’s neighborhoods is markedly different.
When a longtime homeowner tried to speak up at the only City Council hearing on a project in his Far North Side neighborhood, aldermen threatened to toss him from the room for trying to ask questions.
“I’m feeling like chopped liver,” Hugh Devlin, who lives in the 50th Ward, said after the council rubber-stamped his alderman’s approval of a proposed seven-story, 90-unit building that he and many other neighbors oppose.
In the ongoing “Neighborhoods for Sale” series, the Tribune has documented an insiders’ game in which aldermen rake in millions of dollars in campaign cash from developers, zoning lawyers and architects while often overriding the concerns of homeowners and city planners. Out-of-scale buildings leave existing homes in their shadows, the result of nearly 6,000 council-approved zoning changes in the last 10 years that have transformed neighborhoods.
The results of this patchwork approach to development have been jarring, with mini-mansions replacing modest bungalows and condo blocks rising over increasingly traffic-choked streets.
The Tribune has found that zoning rules have been ignored or changed to make it easier for developers and harder for residents to have a meaningful say in what gets built on their streets.
Developers commonly fail to put up signs required by law to notify neighbors of proposed zoning changes. Neighbors frequently don’t get letters notifying them of nearby projects.
And if they manage to learn of pending proposals and attend the City Hall hearings, they may find themselves prohibited from asking questions of developers and aldermen.
For a street-level view of how the code really works, look at the 50th Ward and the story of the proposed seven-story senior housing complex the City Council recently approved at the behest of Ald. Bernard Stone. Many of the persistent problems with the city’s system—the lack of proper notice for neighbors, the impotence of city planners, the disdain for public opinion—were evident in the recent dispute in the West Rogers Park neighborhood.
At issue was a west suburban doctor’s $9 million plan for almost 100 units of senior housing and ground-floor commercial space on a vacant lot in the 6900 block of North Western Avenue.
No signs on project sites
Under a city rule approved just a few years ago, the developer was required to display a notice of the hearing on the property. While the developer’s attorneys provided photos of the sign on the day of the Zoning Committee hearing, no sign was on display at the site during several visits by the Tribune in the weeks before the committee vote.
There’s no doubt the developer’s attorney knows the rules. He’s James Banks, nephew of Ald. William Banks (36th), chairman of the City Council’s Zoning Committee, and one of the city’s most successful zoning lawyers.
Neighborhood activists say they only learned of the project when they noticed that Stone had placed the proposal on the council’s Zoning Committee agenda. They complained, prompting the alderman to put off the committee vote and call unofficial public meetings at his office.
Alerted by activists, the crowds at the meetings in Stone’s ward office were overwhelmingly against the project. But Stone made it clear he supported the project.
“Why shouldn’t we build it?” Stone told the crowd.
They replied that the developer had conducted no study of how traffic would affect the area, that parking was insufficient and that the new building would be far taller than any structure in the area.
When one critic asked Stone why no sign had been displayed, the alderman responded that he was among the council members who instituted the sign requirement, but he quickly added: “I am not a policeman. We do not enforce that. All we do is pass the law.”
The alderman told the crowd that the “proper place” to question the process would be in the courts.
The rule requiring signs at proposed project sites is ignored across the city more often than it is obeyed, the Tribune investigation found.
Signs were supposed to be up within five days at the sites of the 26 zoning proposals introduced at the April council meeting. Almost a month later, no signs were visible on 14 of those properties visited by reporters.
No signs were visible on any of the five properties where the law firm of James Banks and his father, Samuel Banks, were representing the developers. They did not return calls seeking comment.
Many of the about 100 people at Stone’s meeting also said they never received mail notices from James Banks, who told the crowd his office had indeed mailed the notices. The City Council rewrote the old rules that stated letters be sent by registered mail. Now, regular mail is allowed.
When the 50th Ward project came to the council’s Zoning Committee for a vote on May 20, two residents—including Devlin—showed up to protest, while a third resident offered support for the project.
As James Banks appeared before the board, his uncle the committee chairman said he would not participate in the discussion or vote because of his family ties to the project’s lawyer. Ald. Eugene Schulter (47th) temporarily served as chairman.
When it was his turn to testify, Devlin asked Schulter why the applicant’s lawyer failed to post a sign. Schulter responded that witnesses at the committee cannot ask questions. When Devlin asked again, Schulter threatened to call security to toss Devlin from the meeting.
Devlin apologized and told the committee that he wanted to note the multiple political donations to his alderman from the Banks law firm and from the project architect’s. State records show more than $3,000 in donations to Stone from Samuel Banks.
Schulter cut off Devlin: “That’s totally, totally out of line. Totally out of line. We are talking about the project before the committee at this time . . . This is totally irrelevant.”
Devlin likewise got no help from the city Zoning Department’s staff, which had recommended against the project because it would be “too dense” for the neighborhood. The Daley administration’s top two zoning officials, both of whom were previously aides to Ald. Banks, sat silently through the committee meeting.
The lone proponent, Nadim Siddiqui, said, “I would like to have a senior citizen rental area around where I would live.”
Stone moved to approve the plans, noting that the developer agreed to add more parking spaces and had assured him the new structure would end up shorter than the maximum allowed under the new zoning. The committee unanimously did as Stone wished and the full City Council approved the plan June 11.
After the committee hearing, Devlin approached project architect John Hanna outside the council chambers. He asked Hanna why he gave $3,000 to Stone before last year’s hard-fought 50th Ward election, even though Hanna does not live in the ward.
“I get requests [for donations] all the time, from every alderman,” Hanna responded.
“This money has a big effect on who represents my neighborhood here,” said Devlin, a computer consultant who has lived in the ward since 1975.
“Politics is politics, you know?” Hanna said. “Nice meeting you.”
Tribune reporter Monique Garcia contributed to this report.