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
- By MarySue Barrett and Justin Williams, MPC Research Assistant
- April 23, 2019
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.
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.