Expanding aldermanic power spells disaster for Chicago businesses

Expanding aldermanic power spells disaster for Chicago businesses

Since Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office in 2011, aldermen have been on the defensive regarding their power. The latest attempt to retain some of that power is taking place along a stretch of 71st Street in the 5th Ward.

Changes are in store for a stretch of commercial property in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood if the local alderman’s wishes are granted. Namely, any new businesses wanting to open up along this stretch will have to ask the alderman’s permission.

Ald. Leslie Hairston, 5th Ward, introduced a series of zoning changes at the March City Council Meeting that would drastically alter the business environment.

These ordinances would change the zoning along 71st Street from mixed commercial/residential to only allowing single-family residential. The intention is not to entice single-family homes in this stretch. Instead, this is meant to require any potential businesses to ask for aldermanic support for a zoning variance to open their business.

This comes at the same time that a group of 17 aldermen led by Ald. Gregory Mitchell, 7th Ward, are attempting to require aldermanic oversight on the issuance of licenses. Ald. Hairston is a co-sponsor of that legislation as well.

“For far too long aldermen like myself have been blamed for bad decisions for the neighborhood. My colleagues get blamed for every pawn shop and dollar store. However, the truth is that we have very little oversight of most businesses,” said Ald. Gilbert Villegas, 36th Ward, to the Nadig Press. Proponents of both ordinances have noted that these are about protecting residents from businesses that use “deceptive practices.”

The reality is that these ordinances are about power. Ald. Hairston’s chief of staff, Kim Webb, admitted that this move was about aldermanic control over what businesses could open. Further, this move, and changes like it, will add to city coffers and add to the already high cost of doing business in Chicago.

An individual or business seeking a zoning change must submit an application to the city with a non-refundable fee of $1,025. This fee doesn’t account for lawyer fees or the costs incurred waiting the nearly three months for approval.

Eric Allix Rogers, a longtime South Shore resident and the leader of Reclaiming South Shore for All has noted the potentially devastating effects of this ill-planned ordinance. “Make no mistake: this zoning change means more vacant storefronts, fewer jobs, and very little chance that we’ll see any restaurants or other new businesses on 71st Street,” said Rogers according to Curbed Chicago.

Many have pointed out that aldermen don’t need licensing approval powers. In fact, there are examples of aldermen using their power in questionable fashion to benefit their campaign accounts or remain in power. The City Council needs to curtail its power, not expand it. Aldermen should not be involved with the opening of a business provided it meets all the necessary requirements. Until the Council eliminates its superfluous role in zoning and the issuance of licenses, the city will lose small businesses and continue to see vacant buildings.

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