In the Zone - Metropolitan Planning Council

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In the Zone

MPC is ready to help rewrite Chicago's antique zoning ordinance.

QUESTION: How does one decide what can, or cannot, be built on every plot of land in a highly diverse city of nearly 3 million people and 228 square miles?

The answer, of course, is very carefully. Especially if you happen to be a member of the Mayor's Zoning Reform Commission, which is out to overhaul the city's 43-year-old zoning ordinance and map. Make that very, very carefully if you happen to be Alderman William J.P. Banks (36th) or Loop attorney John Schmidt, the co-chairs of the effort.

Then again, the commission is apt to get a lot of help, and not just from the professional consultants being hired by the city to assist with the huge amount of technical detail. Many developers, no doubt, will try to make a case for higher permissible densities . . . or at least against down-zoning. Industrial owners will lobby against residential encroachment. Strip mall entrepreneurs will fight higher requirements for off-street parking.

But who's going to stick up for the little guy? You know-the two-flat owner who doesn't want a four-story cinderblock condo in the middle of his or her block, or his or her curbs lined with parked cars belonging to people shopping at the convenience mall around the corner?

Who? The Metropolitan Planning Council, that's who. Tracking and shaping the rewrite of Chicago's archaic zoning ordinance will be a major priority for MPC during 2001, and for however long it takes to get the job done. MPC's Urban Development Committee is on the case, and one of our vice-chairs, Lester H. McKeever, Jr., is a member of the mayor's rewrite commission.

The job won't be easy or quick. Zoning is one of the touchiest issues in any city, much less one as political as Chicago.

Zoning regulates the size, shape, and use of the structures in which we spend 90% of our lives. It shapes the patterns of city life, from daily commutes and evening walks in the park to weekend errand runs and morning greetings. Zoning has the power to keep buildings, and indirectly, their occupants, far apart . . . or bring them together. To be fair, the 1957 code, with its strict separation of uses, arithmetic density formulas and International Style bent, has done a more-than-credible job of protecting residential areas from nuisances, and of attracting huge investments in the form of downtown office towers.

But times have changed. There are not just new technologies but new lifestyles, new aesthetics and new expectations about creature comforts, convenience and, in general, quality-of-life.

A new code, for instance, could promote development that strengthens and extends Chicago's existing fabric of transit- and pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods. It could encourage mixed uses, quality open spaces, compact development and good urban design. It could bring back walk-able neighborhoods: places where residents can easily walk, bike or use mass transit to accomplish their daily tasks.

The new zoning code also could do much to maintain the appearance of Chicago's neighborhoods. A set of design guidelines and an easier-to-understand code could help mediate disputes between developers and neighborhood residents by creating clear expectations for both sides. Establishing a "parks/open space" zoning district, for instance, could protect treasured green spaces from intrusion by schools, government offices and parking lots. The city could take its downtown zoning bonus system citywide, securing river-walks and other public amenities from developers in exchange for higher densities or relief from certain requirements.

Fortunately, Chicago doesn't have to reinvent the wheel, as documented by MPC's 1999 survey of zoning efforts in the 50 largest U.S. cities. Several cities, from distant San Diego to nearby Elmhurst, have encouraged walkable neighborhoods using special zoning districts around transit/train stations. Other cities have "legalized" the way people live today by zoning for buildings that combine residential and business uses, corner groceries and live/work lofts. Land uses which require lots of space, or bring in lots of cars (like car washes or vast parking lots) can be positioned so as not to break up walkable business districts. Well-designed, human-scale buildings can create memorable, attractive urban places without the overcrowding and sterility that many associate with higher densities. Downtown, meanwhile, the city is awarding density bonuses for amenities it wants (river-edge improvements, sidewalk display windows) instead of things it stopped wanting long ago (shadowy "arcades" along the sides of skyscrapers, empty plazas).

The new zoning code can also help to address the city's affordable housing crisis. "Inclusionary zoning" laws, like those in Boston, New York and Montgomery County, Maryland, grant density bonuses or other incentives to developers of mixed-income housing. Seattle recently re-legalized coach houses and mother-in-law apartments in single-family neighborhoods. More permissive siting of transitional shelters and single-residence-occupancy buildings (SROs) could spur attempts to provide for the homeless.

None of these changes will come easily, which is why several previous attempts at a comprehensive rewrite ended up as dust-catchers on the shelves of City Hall. Indeed, the planning supervisor for Minneapolis recently warned Chicago to "be prepared for an eight to ten year process."

That's too long, considering the need. But however long it takes, MPC will be there-watching, listening, advocating for higher standards and, of course, looking out for the little guy.

This article was featured in the Winter 2001 edition of Regional Connection, MPC's member newsletter.  To join MPC, click here

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