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New report highlights the potential ethical pitfalls of aldermanic downzonings

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A watchdog group recently examined one alderman’s involvement in Wicker Park’s Double Door dispute

Flickr Creative Commons/Matt Clare

While zoning law is a vital tool when it comes to responsible urban planning and development, Chicago’s system of absolute “aldermanic privilege” can present its own set of potential pitfalls. The city’s fifty individual aldermen are generally in full control over what is built in their respective wards creating an environment with few checks and balances when it comes to possible corruption, manipulation, and even revenge. Governmental watchdog group Project Six recently shined a light on one such example of a Chicago elected public official getting involved in a private dispute between a business and its landlord through an allegedly punitive downzoning measure.

After a widely reported disagreement between Wicker Park’s well-known Double Door music venue at 1572 N. Milwaukee Avenue and the building’s owners, the business was served a court-ordered eviction notice early this year. In an apparent attempt to save the current tenant—or perhaps punish the landlord—1st Ward Alderman Proco Joe Moreno stepped in and introduced an ordinance to “spot zone” the property from its B3-2 designation to a far more restrictive B1-1 status.

Though the piece of legislation is currently sitting idly in committee, Project Six argues that the measure is being used as a sort of threat to persuade the property owner to continue renting its space to the Double Door. The report points to campaign contributions and favors from the concert venue’s owners as motivation for the apparent show of favoritism in a what should have been a private disagreement.

While changes to zoning for new developments tend to be part of a more transparent and community-driven process in Chicago, the move to downzone 1572 N. Milwaukee Avenue in order to limit the kind of businesses that can occupy the premises took place under the radar. Similar criticisms have been levied against recent downzoning measures in Logan Square to force “greedy” apartment developers to include more than the legally required amount of on-site affordable housing.

Alderman Moreno’s intervention into the Double Door affair “is not a local leader working for the best interests of his constituents,” argues Project Six. “It is an example of an elected official abusing his power to help the politically connected.” Read the full report along with transcripts from a heated verbal altercation between Moreno and property owner Brian Strauss here.