At Exchange Ideas on May 17, we fielded a lot of great questions and feedback over the course of about an hour of open discussion. We shared a summary of key questions with expert planners to get their take.
Answers were drafted by Steven Vance, Founder and CEO of Chicago Cityscape, a website that makes neighborhood, property, and construction development data accessible to all. Steven is an urban planner who creates apps and maps about active transportation modes and land use patterns in Chicago. He graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Urban Planning and Public Administration (CUPPA), worked at the Chicago Department of Transportation, Active Transportation Alliance, and Streetsblog Chicago. Responses were also reviewed by Kurtis Pozsgay, AICP, a nationally-accredited urban planner who serves as Senior Planner for the Village of Bensenville and sits on the Economic Development Committee of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.
Q: What is the process for passing re-zoning ordinances, including timeline?
A: An ordinance to change the zoning classification of a parcel or group of parcels is introduced to City Council by the Mayor, the City Clerk, a City Council Member, a property owner, or a public person who has obtained the written consent of the property owner, and then referred to the Committee on Zoning, Landmarks, and Building Standards. The committee meets on a monthly basis, and announces the meetings 30 days prior on the City Clerk’s website. The committee can also hold special meetings that would typically consider a single topic or ordinance. The committee can defer the ordinance to be discussed and voted on at a future meeting, or never at all. The proposed ordinance can be rescinded by the person who introduces it. The ordinance takes effect “upon passage” by the City Council, although it may be up to two months before the Chicago Department of Planning & Development’s zoning division draws the new boundaries into the official map.
Q: How impactful is a plan developed with the help of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, or CMAP (which is what our petition calls for)? Will it just get put on a shelf and forgotten about? Can government funding (of any kind) be withheld on their recommendation?
A: Typically plans developed for a corridor, a district, or a neighborhood recommend development patterns after a participatory process where residents identify the problems and co-develop solutions with planners. These plans can be made by many organizations, and are often done in collaboration with the Chicago Department of Planning & Development because they have a lot of analytical resources and institutional knowledge. The plans, however, are merely advisory.
Plans can be made stronger if a zoning change that follows the plan’s recommendations is executed following its adoption. This would change the zoning districts in the area to match the plan’s recommendations as needed. For example, if the plan recommends that buildings on a particular block should have ground floor retail and a density of 2-4 households per building, then any zoning districts that don’t allow that kind of building would be changed to one that does. This tells existing residents and business owners, and future builders and developers, that they can expect a certain condition and welcome, so to speak, in the future – and won’t experience surprise zoning changes – when it comes time for them to move, expand a business, open a new business, or renovate or build new housing.
Q: Is any part of the down-zone area in Harris’s ward?
A: Seven of the eight downzoning ordinances that Hairston has proposed are in Hairston’s ward (5th), and one is in Mitchell’s ward (7th). None of the down-zoning area is in the 8th Ward (Harris), but she sits as a member of the Committee on Zoning, Landmarks, and Building Standards, so she has an important say over this as well.
Q: Does the alderman’s office have to apply to CMAP for assistance, or another organization?
A: The alderman should, indeed, contact CMAP to inquire about their Local Technical Assistance program which pays for and sometimes completes neighborhood plans. The alderman’s support for outside assistance in developing a plan is crucial to the adoption of the plan and executing its recommendations. If an outside organization doesn’t see support from elected officials, then there’s little reason to believe the recommendations would be enacted.
Q: Can we talk to or learn from other neighborhoods that have had success with this planning process?
A: There are several organizations which provide assistance to ward offices and community groups:
Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) has a Quality of Life Plan program that is ongoing
Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) created future development plans for the Stewart school (former CPS, sold to private developer) in Uptown, and a city-owned parking lot next to the Logan Square Blue Line station
Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) will help create topical plans around affordable housing, climate change resilience, and access to transit
Q: What happens to the Special Service Area (SSA) if 71st Street is down-zoned?
A: Zoning changes do not change how an SSA operates, or where its boundaries are.
Q: Do property tax rates change when a property goes from commercially zoned to residential?
A: Properties are taxed based on their uses, not their underlying zoning districts.
Q: After down-zoning, could owners rent out storefronts as residences as of right?
A: No. Any existing uses of the property are allowed (these are called “legal, non-conforming” uses), but a change in use must match the new zoning classification. If the property owner wants to change the storefront to a residential unit, they would have to renovate the building to match what the new zoning district requires. In the case of Hairston’s proposal of changing all the districts to RS-3, there are rules on the minimum size the residential unit has to be, and how much front, rear, and side yard space it has to have, all requiring substantial renovations or partial demolitions of the building.
Other side effects of this are that a property owner wouldn’t be able to subdivide their commercial space from one large space to two spaces; an owner also wouldn’t be able to subdivide an upstairs residential unit.
Q: Would businesses on the street still be eligible for Neighborhood Opportunity Fund money after down-zoning?
A: Yes, because that program offers grants based on the use of the property, not the property’s zoning class.