News & Politics » Ben Joravsky on Politics

Twilight zoning in the 43rd Ward



The mayor wasn't the only Daley who bid farewell to the City Council at its May 4 meeting. Forty-third Ward alderman Vi Daley (no relation) was also there for her last meeting, since she too decided not to run for reelection.

As a parting gift, the council gave Mayor Daley a crystal bowl and one last blast of oratorical adulation.

Alderman Daley didn't come away empty-handed either. She got a zoning change.

For months the alderman had been trying to upzone the property at Lincoln and Webster avenues so developers can tear down the old Lincoln Park Hospital and put up a retail-commercial-residential complex called Webster Square. After some political machinations, the council bowed to her request.

But before we get to the council's interesting zoning machinations, a few words about Webster Square. It's a project of Sandz Development, whose principals are longtime developers Michael Supera and Richard Zisook, and plans call for 152 condominium units, including 120 "affordably-priced luxury condiminiums"; a six-story office building; and a 12,000-square-foot "boutique grocery store" called the Fresh Market, according to the development's website.

Many locals vehemently oppose the project, raising the usual concerns people have about development in this particularly overdeveloped corner of Lincoln Park: too much traffic, too much noise, too much congestion.

In an advisory referendum on the ballot in November, about 56 percent of the voters in the surrounding precinct cast ballots against the proposal.

But the developers won the support of Alderman Daley, the one Lincoln Parker whose vote mattered most.

The alderman, down to her last days in office, did not return calls for comment. But she has explained her rationale on her website: "I have hosted five large community meetings and countless smaller meetings regarding the proposed redevelopment," she wrote. "During that time, the developer has responded to most of the concerns expressed by the community and myself."

Her support was crucial because the developers needed to change the zoning of the site from residential to business. With Alderman Daley's backing, the Chicago Plan Commission, a board of mayoral appointees, recommended the zoning change at its December 17 meeting, and the City Council's zoning committee approved the change on March 22. It looked as though the full council was set to follow suit—except that one last technicality got in the way.

On April 5, 43rd Ward voters elected a new alderman, Michele Smith, who very much opposes the project. "It's too dense for a residential area," she said.

Nor is she impressed by the changes Alderman Daley says the developers have made. "They haven't made significant changes," said Smith. "Their original proposal was like most first proposals—they asked for the moon, the stars, and all the outer planets. Now we're down to the moon, the stars, and Mars. We haven't gotten to earth yet."

Webster Square was a key issue in the aldermanic campaign. Smith was against it; her runoff opponent, Tim Egan, was for it—a contrast the developers highlighted in a mailing sent to voters. "Candidate Tim Egan supports the revitalization," the mailing reads. "Candidate Michele Smith organized against and continues to oppose the Webster Street plan."

Just in case some of the ward's slower residents didn't quite get the point, the mailing's headline reads: "Decay or Vibrancy—The Future of Lincoln Park is in Your Hands."

By that standard, decay won. Smith defeated Egan with about 51 percent of the overall vote, largely on the basis of a strong turnout from the precincts in and around Webster and Lincoln.

After the election, Smith began lobbying sitting aldermen to vote against the zoning change. "I was able to convince some people to help me work for a compromise," she said.

And those people were?

"Aldermen Ed Burke, Richard Mell, and Pat O'Connor."

They would be three of the most powerful and longest-serving members of the council, men who fervently believe in the principle of aldermanic privilege. That's the unwritten rule that aldermen are the kings or queens of zoning in their own wards because they know what's best for their communities—and, well, why become an alderman if you can't be the boss?

Normally, in other words, the matter would be entirely in Daley's hands. But on April 13, at Smith's request, the big three teamed up for a legislative maneuver called defer and publish, which essentially postponed the vote until the next council meeting.

Afterward Burke told reporters that he was giving Smith and the developers three weeks to work out a compromise.

They didn't. Smith said she and Zisook had one face-to-face meeting in the office of Ted Novak, the developers' zoning lawyer.

Novak did not return calls for comment, but Smith said he and the developers refused to budge on the key issue. "I wanted them to give us an alternative to the grocery store, which is the one part of the deal that folks oppose the most," she said. "They said they have got to have the grocery store."

The next council meeting was on May 4. This time the big three didn't defer and publish. Nor was there any action by Alderman Danny Solis, the chairman of the council's zoning committee, who could have held the matter rather than calling it for a full council vote.

But Solis, like Burke, Mell, and O'Connor, is a big believer in aldermanic privilege. "The current alderman was for it and so it passed the committee," Solis said.

And that's it? Even if the current alderman is a lame duck and the incoming alderman opposes the change? "Then it's up to Michele Smith to overturn it," Solis said.

Sure enough, the council had barely signed off on the zoning change before Smith vowed to introduce an ordinance to change it back just as soon as she's in office.

And if she does, Solis said, the council will probably abide by her wishes—in which case they'll be undoing what they just did in order to comply with the shifting desires of the changing aldermen.

Thank goodness we don't have aldermanic elections every year. Otherwise the council might be changing zoning on a month-to-month basis.

"This does get a little ridiculous," noted Reuben Hedlund, a zoning lawyer who used to chair the Plan Commission.

And that's not even the end of it. The developers are rushing to get their demolition and building permits before Smith gets the council to downzone the property.

If the developers win the race, you can expect nearby residents to file suit, in which case they'll probably hire Hedlund and former 43rd Ward alderman Marty Oberman.

But if the alderman wins the race, look for the developers to file suit.

Hey, at least the lawyers are getting something out of this.

E-mail Ben Joravsky at

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