Stop the down-zoning of 71st Street!

Zoning change notification

5th Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston has filed a series of proposed ordinances to re-zone most of 71st Street, the commercial heart of South Shore, from a variety of zoning districts that allow retail and commercial businesses and single or multi-unit residential to only allow single-family homes. This will actively dissuade any future businesses from locating on our neighborhood’s most important commercial street.

Why is this a bad idea?

  • This will make it impossible to obtain ANY new business license on 71st without going through a time-consuming, costly process to seek a zoning variance. Re-zoning costs at least $1,000 in fees and adds at least 3 months of delay. It’s not as simple as asking for the support of the alderman; seeking a variance is a complicated legal process. This will virtually guarantee that no new businesses at all will open in the affected area – least of all small, local, entrepreneurial businesses that cannot afford to jump through these new legal hurdles. (Existing businesses that wish to expand or offer new services will also face these hurdles.)
  • The motive for this proposal appears to be to give the alderman leverage over “problem businesses” that may be linked to crime. This change will not provide the alderman with any new tools to enforce standards on existing problem businesses. Current business licenses are grandfathered in and can be renewed indefinitely.
  • No public debate, discussion, or announcement took place prior to the introduction of this proposal. Business and property owners in the affected area learned of the proposal when they received formal letters about it over the last couple of weeks. Other neighborhood residents first learned of the proposal when signs (pictured above) were posted on 71st Street during the week of April 24th.
  • This zoning change would permit developers to construct single-family homes on the vacant land along 71st, without any need to seek aldermanic or community approval. 71st Street is supposed to be a dense, walkable business district, and single-family homes would be inappropriate for the corridor. While there is probably not any plan to do this right now, this zoning change increases the risk of such inappropriate development in the future.

How does this compare to other neighborhoods?

It’s instructive to compare the proposed zoning to the zoning that exists on 71st and other commercial corridors now. Alderman Hairston wants to down-zone the blue areas in the map below from commercial/business to single-family residential. This would apply the most restrictive possible zoning to nearly the entire 71st Street corridor.

Now compare the proposed down-zoning to the existing zoning. The following maps were obtained from the terrific 2nd City Zoning website. Business and commercial zoning is blue, industrial is yellow, and green is residential. Darker shades indicate denser or more permissive zoning. Red areas are Planned Developments, which have gone through a special proposal and planning process, including community input, to build a development that would not normally be permitted by an area’s zoning.

71st Street (above) is currently zoned commercial. Jeffery Plaza was built as a Planned Development, as were the townhomes on the north side of the street near South Shore Drive. The rest currently has zoning that permits owners and tenants to obtain business licenses, as you would expect in a commercial district.

Woodlawn’s 63rd Street, once a major commercial thoroughfare, is a cautionary tale. Most of the street is subject to ill-advised Planned Development agreements. The result speak for themselves: a smattering of single-family homes, a lot of vacant land, and a mere two businesses east of Drexel. This is not a good model for 71st Street, with its terrific transit and dense, walkable environment.

A better nearby example, 53rd Street in Hyde Park has seen booming development in recent years. Nearly the entire stretch is zoned commercial – except for a couple of Planned Developments, put in place after significant community input to permit the denser Harper Court and Vue53 projects.

26th Street in Little Village is one of the most vibrant retail corridors in the city, populated almost entirely by the kind of small locally-owned and entrepreneurial businesses we would like to see in South Shore. Only the Magnificent Mile generates more in sales taxes than 26th Street in La Villita, and the entire corridor is zoned commercial.

Lakeview is one of Chicago’s most dynamic neighborhoods. Not everyone wants to live in such a congested community, and I am not arguing that South Shore should become more like Lakeview. But there’s no question that its commercial districts – along Belmont, Lincoln, Clark, Broadway, Ashland, Sheffield, and Southport – are thriving. They are all zoned for commercial use.

How will this impact new businesses on 71st?

Put yourself in the shoes of someone starting a business. You already face a lot of risk and uncertainty: what if the market for whatever you sell isn’t strong? What if you’re the first business to open on a block of vacant storefronts, and you don’t get much customer traffic? What if it takes so long to get all your licenses and pass all of your city inspections that you run out of money before you ever get a chance to open? (It happens.) What if you’re opening a restaurant or cafe (notoriously low-profit businesses, but also among those most desired by South Shore residents) and you just can’t afford any margin for error beyond your basic startup costs?

Facing all of these uncertainties, why would any entrepreneur or developer take on the additional risk of attempting to open on 71st Street? Before even signing a lease or beginning construction on a space, they would have to hire an attorney, pay at least $1,000 to the city, wait three months, and hope to be granted a zoning variance. (Note that getting a variance is not as simple as just talking to the alderman and getting permission.) This adds substantial expense and delay to the already difficult process of starting a business, and it will steer most potential new businesses away to other corridors with appropriate zoning.

This is not the way to build a thriving commercial street. We should be looking for positive tools and incentives to draw desirable businesses to locate on 71st Street. (And we should continue to use existing enforcement processes to deal with problem businesses.) Make no mistake: this zoning change means more vacant storefronts, fewer jobs, and very little chance that we’ll see any restaurants or other new businesses on 71st Street. This is not the way forward.

Take Action!

If this concerns you, contact your alderman (whether or not you live in the 5th Ward) and let them know that you are opposed to down-zoning 71st Street. Action on this proposal may be taken as soon as May 9, so time is of the essence.

South Shore neighbors may also want to join the discussion on the Reclaiming South Shore for All Facebook group, or by emailing

Other Coverage (will be updated)

Links to Proposed Ordinances

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