News

Zoning reality, reform divide

August 20, 2008

Chicago Tribune

In the throes of a building boom eight years ago, Mayor Richard Daley appointed a blue-ribbon zoning reform panel to rewrite Chicago’s real estate development rule book for the first time in more than 40 years.

But the Tribune’s “Neighborhoods for Sale” investigation found a big gap between what the reform effort promised and what actually happened.

Reform aim: Give residents more notice of hearings by requiring signs and letters to alert neighbors.

Reality: Requirement of signs on site is not enforced. New rules relaxed old requirement that letters be sent by registered mail; now regular mail is allowed.

Result: The Tribune found no signs at more than half the proposed building sites that reporters visited in recent months. Residents often complain that they don’t get letters about projects in their neighborhoods.

Reform aim: Redraw city’s zoning map ward-by-ward to bring consistency and order to patchwork development and cut the number of zoning changes.

Reality: Only one ward (the 49th) was redrawn.

Result: Individual aldermen continue to dictate what can or can’t be built in their wards on a case-by-base basis. The number of zoning changes has spiked, reaching a high in 2006 amid a building boom.

Reform aim: Reverse a trend of new buildings that “tower over their older cousins.”

Reality: New code actually dropped old provision that made it more difficult to permit “spot” zoning, the practice of allowing new construction that is much bigger than neighboring buildings.

Result: Developers continued to get aldermanic permission for buildings that critics and city planners say are out of scale and change the character of neighborhoods. Aldermen continue to receive campaign donations from developers and real estate agents who rely on them for zoning changes.