The Problems with Downzoning - Metropolitan Planning Council

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The Problems with Downzoning

A case of downzoning in Lincoln Park illustrates the need for reform of Chicago's zoning ordinance.

Recently, the Appellate Court of Illinois issued a ruling which could overturn the city's rezoning of a parcel in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. The court remanded to the Cook County Circuit Court a challenge against Chicago’s zoning filed by Albert Hanna, a Chicago businessman and owner of an apartment building at North Avenue and Mohawk Street. Hanna charges in his suit that a rezoning of the property decreasing the buildable allowance by 22 percent and the city's rezoning of properties like his is illegal and counter to the public interest.

In her judgment, Justice Margaret Stanton McBride wrote that zoning legislation that "bears a substantial relationship to the public health, safety and welfare" is legal, but zoning which is "arbitrary, irrational and capricious" can be voided by the court. The circuit court will rule whether the city's action in this case fell outside of that boundary.

Chicago’s zoning ordinance, now almost 45 years old, has become a patchwork quilt of such arbitrary zoning amendments. Instead of reflecting and implementing the vision of a comprehensive plan, as zoning ideally should, Chicago's land use regulations are made parcel by parcel, in hundreds of small decisions every year.

In order to attract economic development, Chicago must offer a planning, zoning, and building code framework that is predictable and fair to all users. Without that predictability and stability, property owners and neighbors alike cannot anticipate nor plan for how their neighborhoods will grow in the future.

Chicago currently has an historic opportunity to replace this sort of ad hoc planning that has become standard practice in recent years with a planning framework which will work in the long term public interest.

The Mayor's Zoning Reform Commission is presently overhauling the antiquated text of Chicago’s current zoning code, so that the code will allow for contemporary building practices. Next year, the Commission will look at applying these new rules to the city as they update the zoning map.

These planning efforts should create a better foundation for zoning in Chicago. Zoning that follows from comprehensive planning would fulfill the city's legal obligation to create zoning that is fair to all users. This planning should accommodate growth and anticipate the scale of new development while placing that development within a context which respects the scale and character of existing neighborhoods. Planning should also incorporate the needs and concerns of residents, businesses, landowners and the city at large, pre-empting conflict between those groups when final land use decisions are made.

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