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The Guide for the Zoning Perplexed

A new handbook seeks to empower community members by explaining public land use

Standing between Archer and Wentworth Avenues, the Chinatown Public Library is an architectural marvel—a two-story structure of steel and glass designed in accordance with the principles of Feng Shui. Natural light pours into the all-white atrium, which features a splashy lotus-inspired mural on the second floor. You could be forgiven for thinking it was an art museum.

Opened in 2015, this $19.1-million library branch, one of the most-used in the city, is the culmination of years of neighborhood advocacy from the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community (CBCAC). The library is spacious, with robust event programming tailored to the interests of its Chinese-speaking residents—a reminder of the benefits that community organizing can bring to a neighborhood.

One night in November, the library played host to a zoning 101 workshop, the first in a series by the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights aimed at educating residents about economic development and land use. These events are meant to accompany the incremental release of the organization’s Chicago Land Use: A Guide for Communities, a handbook that seeks to clarify the complex policies and closed-door decision-making that often go hand-in-hand with neighborhood change in the city.

The guide comes at an opportune time: the dearth of affordable housing in the city and the gentrification of ethnic enclaves throughout the city have left historically marginalized communities of color feeling vulnerable and unsure of where to turn. Residents and advocacy groups are pushing for greater transparency and a seat at the table when it comes to developments being built in their neighborhoods; understanding how land is zoned and used is a big part of that fight.

Clifford Helm, an attorney for the committee’s Community Law Project, is the guide’s author. According to Helm, the online guidebook was born out of a desire to help communities become more involved in the shaping of their own neighborhoods. This particular workshop coincided with the release of the first chapter, which focuses on explaining zoning policy in layman’s terms and outlines ways that community members can get involved in the process. A second chapter is forthcoming on TIFs, or tax increment financing, while future topics may include community land trusts (subsidized home ownership through a nonprofit) and shared equity cooperatives (affordable housing in which each co-op member purchases a share).

“If you look at all the publications that are out there now, none of them are written in a way that a community member would be able to access,” Helm told the Weekly prior to the workshop. “They’re all written by policymakers or staff members….They also go into a lot of specific detail about the application process and things that are not that important for understanding how the process itself works.”

Helm said that the committee is intent on empowering Chicagoans of underserved, marginalized communities: “Our goal, at the end of the day, is to build community wealth, and for that wealth to come from people who are already in the community.”

The zoning workshop was organized into two parts, with time for questions at the end. The first part, conducted by C. Harrison Cooper, a real estate and development attorney with the firm Dykema, was dedicated to technical explanations about the history of zoning, zoning classifications, and the application for amendments to zoning.

Helm himself led the second half, which concentrated on community engagement as it relates to zoning. Chicago’s labyrinthine zoning laws can have far-reaching effects on the culture and makeup of a community; they don’t simply dictate what kind of building can go up on a particular parcel of land—seemingly innocuous rules and regulations basically determine who is allowed or accepted into a neighborhood.

Earlier this year, the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance (CAFHA) and the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law released a report condemning the role that aldermanic prerogative—the informal, disproportionate power over zoning and other tools of city government that aldermen hold within their wards—has played in blocking affordable housing initiatives, an action that they believe worsens the city’s economic and racial segregation.

Because so many decisions require input or approval from the aldermen, aldermanic prerogative is a barrier to creating equitable, community-driven processes. Aldermen help set agendas, approve budgets, and, due to aldermanic prerogative, almost always have the final say on what is allowed to go into their neighborhoods. As Far North Side 49th Ward Alderman Joe Moore once put it, “I often liken the City of Chicago [to] a feudal system, where the mayor is sort of a de facto king. And each alderman is the lord—I guess, lady, for female aldermen—of their individual fiefdom.”

Helm described the current state of community engagement with zoning as both “encouraging” and “potentially problematic.” If done well, advocacy for and against zoning changes can lead to lasting quality-of-life improvements or progress toward social justice in a community. But what the community wants isn’t always just, and that raises questions about the responsibility of the alderman—not only to the community, but to the city as a whole.

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While the information is public and accessible to anyone, it is really intended to empower the organization’s community partners, which had been asking the committee for advice on equitability in land use and zoning issues, Helm said.

At the workshop, there were several people in attendance who had been seeking that type of information in order to enact changes within their communities. One of those attendees was Jonathan Mendoza, a community organizer with Pilsen Alliance, which works against gentrification and displacement in Pilsen. Mendoza came to the workshop to learn more about community-driven zoning efforts in the city, in hopes of implementing a fairer system in Pilsen.

Currently, most developments in the neighborhood requiring a zoning change go before the Pilsen Land Use Committee (PLUC), which is made up of members of nonprofits close to 25th Ward Alderman Danny Solis. Residents and neighborhood groups like the Pilsen Alliance have long criticized PLUC for secrecy around their approval process, acting as a rubber stamp for Solis, and for failing to effectively combat displacement of longtime residents. Youth organizers with the Pilsen Alliance placed an advisory referendum on the November midterm ballot calling for the community to vote to replace PLUC with a “community driven zoning process,” which was approved with 72.6% of the vote. Solis, for his part, has faced strong criticism for his closeness to developers throughout his twenty-two years in office.

With the future of Pilsen’s leadership up in the air—five candidates are running to replace Solis, who announced he would not be seeking reelection in November—there is some hope that its next representative on City Council will better reflect the interests of the community (most of the candidates have made equitable zoning decisions a campaign issue). Regardless of who’s in power though, Mendoza believes there is still work to be done.

“We need movement building too. Beyond having small meetings with legislators, we also need to get on the ground and knock on doors and talk to people and organize in huge numbers for people to collectively address what’s going on,” Mendoza said. “[We will] definitely try to win what we need hyperlocally with each development or each proposed zoning change, but also [need to] recognize where fundamentally we need to change the system that allows for this.”

Mendoza pointed to the zoning model of the 35th Ward as an example, which was also cited by Helm during the workshop as a recent case study in transparency. There, Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa’s Community-Driven Zoning and Development program has seen success in driving resident participation and increasing transparency in development decisions in the parts of Logan Square, Avondale, Hermosa, Albany Park, and Irving Park that he represents. In a more controversial move, Ramirez-Rosa has also used downzoning (re-zoning an area to a stricter classification, requiring more aldermanic approvals for proposed changes) as a defense against gentrification and unwanted development in the neighborhood. Citywide, there are at least twelve documented ward-level community advisory processes on major developments. Nearly all are on the North Side.

But while Helm is a staunch advocate of greater community participation in zoning, he was careful to temper expectations during his presentation, pointing to the city’s political and bureaucratic realities.

“We’re running up against centuries of the way that Chicago does business, so we do things this way—and that’s the response that you get from the city, that you get from the aldermen, that you get from developers,” he said. “There’s a momentum there that has to be challenged if there is to be a change.”

One of those political realities is that, historically, white communities have organized relentlessly in opposition to perceived threats to their social or economic status. When Black families moved into all-white neighborhoods in the decades after World War II, local residents often rioted, often with few or no legal repercussions. And in the late 1980s, community organizations from the predominantly white Northwest and Southwest Sides, feeling threatened by the election of Mayor Harold Washington, merged to create a coalition of community groups called Save Our Neighborhoods/Save Our City, which stridently opposed Washington’s desegregation efforts and advocated for a controversial home equity insurance program. Founder Jean Mayer described the coalition’s aims succinctly: “Blacks and Latinos have set their agendas. It’s time white ethnics did the same.”

A more recent example is the the 5150 N. Northwest Highway development in Jefferson Park on the city’s Far Northwest Side. A mixed-income housing development proposed for construction in the 45th Ward, 5150 N. Northwest Highway sets aside eighty percent of its units to Chicago residents at below-market rates, with some priority given to veterans and people with disabilities.

Alderman John Arena has been a strong supporter of the proposal. However, some Jefferson Park residents have come out against the development, filing a since-rejected lawsuit on behalf of Northwest Side Unite, a newly formed nonprofit that, according to its website, is organized around “preserving the unique character of the Northwest Side.” At a particularly raucous community meeting in 2017, Jefferson Park residents revealed in not-so-subtle terms what they thought of potential new residents at the affordable housing development. Choruses of “it’s a project” and “no Section 8” rang out in the room of mostly white residents.

The 5150 N. Northwest Highway development, which was approved by City Council in September, was briefly mentioned during the zoning workshop, though largely without comment. Helm maintains that the organization’s goal isn’t to advocate for any particular sides or issues.

When the Weekly asked how the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights felt about disseminating educational info that could be used to further agendas that promote inequity, Helm said that he didn’t think that it would affect or amplify the organizing that’s already happening. “When we think about creating the tools to actually create community engagement, there is a huge information asymmetry in education and access between disinvested communities, particularly communities of color, than there is with more affluent communities.”

That’s where organizations like the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, also known as CBCAC, enter the picture.

CBCAC advocates for Chinatown residents and the growing Chinese populations in neighborhoods to the southwest, mainly Bridgeport and McKinley Park. It’s a grassroots organization that has increased Asian-American voter turnout and advocated for the construction of the Chinatown library, and in recent years has focused on preventing gentrification and preserving affordable housing. Last year, the coalition partnered with George Villanueva, a professor of advocacy and social change at Loyola University Chicago, to create an “anti-displacement” map, which proactively highlights culturally significant landmarks, community organizations, and businesses within Chinatown that residents want to protect from future real estate development. Locations on the map include Ping Tom Park, the Pui Tak Center, and the Nine Dragon Wall.

Kelly Chen, another attendee of the zoning workshop, has been helping to lead the charge since joining the organization in August. Chen, who holds a master’s degree in urban planning from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, works with CBCAC to educate residents about economic development in the area.

With development bleeding over from the South Loop and the Near South Side’s Motor Row—an area near McCormick Place that the city has recommended to the state for participation in the federal government’s controversial “Opportunity Zone” program for tax-incentivized investment—residents worry what these changes will mean for their homes, businesses, and the neighborhood’s tight-knit Chinese-American culture. Chen has noticed particular concern around “The 78,” which is a sixty-two-acre mixed-use development slated to bridge the gap between the South Loop and Chinatown once the project is completed in fifteen to twenty years. Its direct proximity to Chinatown could affect property values and lead to the displacement of low-income residents.

According to Chen, one of the uphill battles that CBCAC has run into is figuring out how to mobilize residents, many of whom are immigrants not as versed in the conversations around gentrification that are happening in other parts of Chicago. This makes any in-the-weeds policy discussions around zoning a more difficult ask, since it requires reorienting the discussions themselves.

“A lot of people are not aware of exactly what displacement looks like, especially since it hasn’t happened in this neighborhood or hasn’t been hit so hard in this neighborhood as much as places like Logan Square. But CBCAC is obviously worried,” Chen said.

“We want to prevent gentrification from happening—because the best time to stop gentrification is before it happens.”

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Taylor Moore is a freelance writer covering arts, culture, and urban development in Chicago. She last contributed to the Little Village and Marshall Square section of the Weekly’s 2018 Best of the South Side issue. She can be found on Twitter at @taylormundo.

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