Tuesday, January 2, 2007

The Tyranny of the Community

Two recently proposed projects, a mixed-use condominium development on Howard St. to be build by developer Robert Coe, and a jazz club to be located at the old Cobbler's Mall building on Morse, have generated somewhat heated commentary in the local community, most notably on two of Rogers Park's most prominent blogs HowardWatchers (http://howardwatchers.blogsource.com/), and the Broken Heart of Rogers Park (http://morsehellhole.blogspot.com/); and dozens of other developments and businesses are being shown to the communities along the north lakefront , including a long-awaited mid rise condominium at Broadway and Grandville, in Edgewater, and numerous other large projects in Edgewater and Uptown.

Since many parts of the north lakefront are being rebuilt almost from the ground up, after reaching a state of blight and disuse that is the last stage before abandonment, we have a unique opportunity to actively participate in the design of our neighborhoods, and the various stakeholders- residents, businesses, property owners, renters- all have a right to a voice in the construction of their neighborhood's elements, including the density, the appearance, the uses of property, and the types of businesses that will be permitted to operate in the area.

There tends to be, however, one consideration that almost never enters into the debate, that of property rights- the right of a property or business owner to develop and/or operate a property or business within the laws and rules already established for the property, without undue obstruction and interference from the "community", and its various representatives.

I'm not here to defend the "right" of a property owners or business proprietors to make any use of their properties and businesses they may decide, without reference to the context in which they operate. Communities have not only the right, but the obligation to restrict or prohibit harmful uses and inappropriate densities and configurations, in order to prevent, say, a sewage reclamation plant, or a decrepitating and dangerous apartment building, from being built or operated in the vicinity. They also have the right to regulate lot lines, setbacks, separation of uses, and other requirements, and to otherwise use zoning and planning as tools to achieve what community consensus deems is the ideal mix of usages, even though these decisions are frequently disastrous and are the direct cause of the deterioration of an area.

However, when does legitimate community oversight and regulation that protects everyone's rights to the use and enjoyment of his own property, become despotic and violative of an owner's rights? Once a developer or business owner has delivered a plan to the community that meets every reasonable requirement under the law, is for an approved use, and has allowed members of the community who might be affected by the project to voice their reasonable objections, it would seem that the "community" and it's representatives, whether official or self-appointed, should step back and recognize that this is someone else's property, money, and future that is on the line and that our "rights" in the situation have been duly exercised, and should end at this point.

At this point, the local political leadership has the ability to gut a business owner's best-laid plans, even when the proprietor is local, reputable, and his business is in absolute conformity to local codes and regulations. As we have seen, failure to contribute to the local Ward King's war chest is a costly strategic goof on the part of the aspirant- the developers of Island Groove, both reputable, local men, never contributed to 49th Ward Alderman Joe Moore's campaign fund and were denied their liquor license despite strong community support for their proposed jazz venue. It's hard to believe that the concurrence of these two circumstances is a coincidence. Some people have suggested that race was an issue, and it could have been, but my belief is that the power vested in our local aldermen has made doing business in the city a 'pay-to-play' proposition.

Citizens have responded to the despotism and corruption of their local leaders by attempting, usually without much success, to derail every project proposed by the detested politico's campaign contributors, without regard to the merits of the project or lack thereof. This is understandable, given individual citizen's powerless in the face of overwhelming corruption and lack of consideration for the welfare of the ward and its denizens by our current alderman.

We are helpless to combat our local alderman-overlord's slumlord contributors such as Jay Johnson and Bud Ogle, we are powerless to prevent even more destructive businesses from sprouting in known trouble spots such as scabby Clark St., and we are defenseless in the face of city -sponsored larceny resulting in the misdirection of hundreds of millions of dollars , that are redirected from our essential city services and civic amenities available to all, at great cost to taxpayers who will derive no benefit either financially or in kind, to private developers who are thereby shielded from entrepreneurial risk while being guaranteed windfall profits with no regard for the results. The results are not only that the blight is not cured, but blight on a mass scale has been introduced at great cost, in ugly, over- scaled development that we will be stuck with for another 30 years, from the aesthetic atrocity of the failed Gateway Center that was developed with funds from the Howard-Paulina TIF, or the renovation of buildings, through the Loyola TIF, belonging to Loyola University, which institution not only never has and never will pay a dime in property taxes, but is directly responsible for the blighted, underutilized properties that deface Sheridan Road between Albion and Granville.

So, we register our protest the only way we can, which is to do our best to obstruct attractive, constructive projects that will greatly enhance the quality of the neighborhood, merely because their sponsors have paid to play in our ward, and have contributed to the coffers of a leader we despise in order to do business. Our knee jerk response is understandable but it is not constructive.

A more constructive course would be to redesign the approval process to make zoning more a matter of land use appropriate for an urban neighborhood, and less a matter of politics and the push-pull between vocal citizens and aldermen with absolutist power over their wards. If a development or business meets all applicable codes, if the type of use is approved for the site, if the developer has the appropriate qualifications and licenses, and if his subcontractors also meet all applicable requirements, then the project should be approved whether the alderman, and the community, approves of it or not, since the community's will has already been written into the zoning and land use rules, unless a variance has been requested. If the project is one that would be a nuisance or inappropriate by the rules and codes, it should not be approved no matter how many bucks its sponsors have donated to the campaign coffers of the local politicians.


Hugh said...

Hi Laura,

Thanks for a thoughtful and articulate post.

I agree with almost all of what you wrote, but i would like to opine that the situation you mention - where a developer is within their legal rights and the community inserts itself - is relatively rare. Most of the time a developer is asking for some kind of concession from the community, a relaxation of requirements or a zoning change even. I would assess that overall projects benefit from community involvement and more problems come when something is snuck by.

The North Coast said...

Dear Hugh,

Thanks for commenting.

I hope my post is not construed to mean that I don't believe in community involvement, because I surely do.

I completely agree with you that when the developer is asking for a concession, such as a zoning variance, that the community has a right to imput into the process.

I also believe that the community has a right to enforce aesthetic standards, to dictate or prohibit certain destructive uses, and to move to restrict a developer or business owner who has a particularly bad track record.

However, with the exception of zoning variances, and particularly troublesome owners, we have a structure of zoning laws governing use, scale, density, and building type. These laws express the will of the community.

My problem is when the community, as represented by the alderman, has the ability to completely shut down a particular business or development because a few individuals, generally the alderman, but sometimes more vocal and powerful community groups, are able to nix a project that is perfectly in keeping with the zoning and land use rules, and is nothing that we really have a right to object to.

The Island Groove jazz club is an example. Another example is a 3-flat on Sheridan owned by a friend of mine, who was stopped mid-project and thereby damaged financially beyond repair, by our alderman.

Another example could be a development that in every way is a good project, but is being done by someone who we find objectional because he is a contributor to our alderman.

I believe that many community groups work against projects that are net harmless simply because we are so powerless to avert really harmful uses and businesses, such as the package liquor stores approved on Clark St. with little or no community imput.

Hugh said...

> Another example is a 3-flat on Sheridan owned by a friend of mine, who was stopped mid-project and thereby damaged financially beyond repair, by our alderman.

I'd like to learn more about this if you have time to type something up. Thanks.

The North Coast said...

Hugh, I was discusssing this man and his problems with a friend, and I am shortly going to seek him out and see how he is doing, hopefully tomorrow.