How to reform aldermanic prerogative: Lessons from New York, L.A. and beyond - Metropolitan Planning Council

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How to reform aldermanic prerogative: Lessons from New York, L.A. and beyond

Ending aldermanic say-so entirely would be an overcorrection. Many residents—particularly from black and brown communities—have reason to distrust power centralized in City Hall. So what's needed? Here are some real world-tested ideas

Image courtesy Getty Images via Crain's Chicago Business

This op-ed first appeared in Crain's Chicago Business

Aldermanic prerogative. A Chicago legacy considered either sacred or scandalous, depending on your perspective. And, according to Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot and a majority of City Council members, it’s a practice that Chicago is finally ready to reform.  

The negatives of unfettered aldermanic prerogative—the custom in Chicago’s City Council to allow each alderman to approve or deny zoning and permit decisions within his or her ward—are clear: It perpetuates segregation, creates disparities in investment across communities and invites political corruption, evidenced by a whopping 30 aldermen convicted since 1972.  

Yet ending aldermanic say-so entirely would be an overcorrection. Many residents—particularly from black and brown communities—have ample reason to distrust power centralized in City Hall.  

So what’s needed? Transparent development guidelines informed by a commitment to equity and robust community engagement. The current system of hyper-local decisions about zoning, permitting and development is often devoid of key citywide equity criteria, leading to an unfair distribution of resources. And with each of the 50 aldermen setting up their own input processes, robust community engagement is shortchanged. 

As Chicago grapples with becoming a more just and fair city, it doesn’t have to re-invent this wheel. Here are three policies—derived from the experiences of cities across the country—to guide Chicago on the on-ramp to shared prosperity:  

Create a citywide vision for neighborhood spaces: Today, development in Chicago happens on an ad-hoc, piecemeal, project-by-project basis. Individual aldermen are left to guess how projects in their ward fit into the city’s health as a whole. Minneapolis 2040 and Los Angeles’ General Plan are inspiring citywide visions that create objective standards by which local elected officials assess individual proposals. A strategic vision for Chicago must involve robust community engagement and be guided by racial equity.  

Embrace efficiency: Chicago’s aldermen spend a lot of time and resources on routine matters: approving signage, parking and right-of-way permits. New York, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Seattle all utilize well-defined rules for “nondiscretionary matters.” Aldermen should be consulted, of course, as these rules are applied in their wards. But they shouldn’t be able to shut the gate tight when they don’t like a proposal. It’s time for Chicago to join its peers. 

Keep the process moving: Both residents and investors deserve transparency and predictability. Chicago sets no timeline by which re-zoning requests have to move through City Council, allowing some aldermen to simply ignore developments they don’t like—without ever publicly justifying why. New York sets clear time frames within which land-use permits must advance through the planning process—or else be approved. Seattle and Minneapolis have similarly transparent planning timelines, models for Chicago to adapt and adopt. 

Every time cynicism threatens to stall these reforms, we will ask: Is the current system fair? Is it fair that some neighborhoods fear development will lead to displacement of longtime residents while others yearn for any type of investment? Is it fair that some Chicagoans have access to transit, attractive nearby parks, and living-wage jobs, while others do not? Guided by this question and the experiences of peer cities, Chicago can turn away from our unfair past and toward our equitable future. 



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