What’s so special about the number 50?

By Sally Duros, Real Estate Editor
Chicago Sun-Times

Why do we have so many aldermen? New York City has one City Council member for every 159,000 residents and Los Angeles has 1 for every 226,000. But here in Chicago, we have one City Council member for every 56,000 residents. That’s a lot of politics per square inch of neighborhood.

So why is that?

“It’s a legacy from when Chicago was an aspiring immigrant city,” said Paul Green, director of the Institute for Politics at Roosevelt University. “It’s from when people couldn’t speak English, and neighborhoods had their own ethnic everything — from grocery stores to restaurants to political leaders.”
Green says the immigrant population at the turn of the 20th century put an indelible stamp on our form of government and the way we get things done.

“In 1890, almost 80 percent of the people living in Chicago were foreign born,” Green said. Up until the 1920s, Chicago had 35 wards with two alderman per ward, each alderman serving a two-year term.
The way things were organized, Chicago politics ran around the clock, with an election continually on the horizon.

Neighborhoods were ethnic enclaves that wanted their own alderman, police, firemen and community leadership, Green said.

In this city of little villages, we were full of diversity, but also ethnic segregation, Green said. The advantage of having so many wards was that everyone was ensured some representation, some jobs and their own piece of the action of a growing, vibrant city.

Chicago’s alderman are famous for their antics — legal and otherwise, according to Green.

It could be a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth or, viewed from another perspective, many players making a more flavorful stew.

In some ways, having all these alderman might help us fulfill our municipal self-talk of being “The City that Works.”

Green said that it’s important to remember that by law, Chicago City Council has tremendous power.

Left to their own devices, all of these alderman could run the city into the ground, Green said.

So “what you wind up with, what you need is a politically strong mayor to keep the alderman in line.”
So if we had fewer alderman would we have less corruption?

“If you reduce the City Council by half, would that reduce the chance for corruption?” Green asks. It’s more likely we would “give alderman a chance to double their fun,” Green said.

Copyright (c) 2007 Chicago Sun-Times, Inc.

Let’s give aldermen a taste of what they dish out

By Sally Duros

My friend Sue is mad as hell and she won’t take it anymore!

But in truth there’s nothing she can do.

“When the house next door was sold,” Sue says, “it was on a 50-foot lot, and the developer subdivided it.” She says the backs and fronts of the two large houses that stand there now extend beyond the depth of her vintage home.

“It cuts off light,” she says. “I am looking at a brick wall where I used to look at my neighbor’s back yard.” And what’s worse, “You don’t find out about it until it’s been done.”

Sue, who lives on Chicago’s Northwest Side asked not to be identified, but stories like hers are being repeated in neighborhoods all over Chicago as the aldermanic elections approach. Sue didn’t know the house next door had been sold, and she didn’t seek help from her alderman, who is very “old” school. She didn’t think he would have assisted. Besides, “by then it was too late. There’s no point,” she says.

Sue isn’t alone.

The 250 candidates running for Chicago’s 50 aldermanic seats in the Feb. 27 election understand that, and they’ve armed themselves with statements on how they will best serve residents and their neighborhoods.

Included in that, we’re sure to hear much about Chicago’s zoning ordinance.

Chicago has been gradually shifting to allow denser development on residential lots since 1998, and you can see this in successive iterations of the zoning ordinance, says Stacey Rubin Silver, a planner and attorney who works with her husband, Warren, in their firm Silver Law Offices.

Sue’s culprit — if you should choose to view it that way and Rubin Silver doesn’t — is the maximum “floor area ratio,” or FAR, allowed for each type of residential structure in Chicago.

In Sue’s case, her house is on a lot in an area zoned RS-3. A new property owner can build whatever he desires on a lot if no zoning change is needed, Rubin Silver says, as long as he complies with classification rules related to yards, parking and open space.

Sue and some of her neighbors would like to downzone their ward to RS-2 from RS-3 so new redevelopment would retain more of the original character of the neighborhood. Downzoning proceeds just like a zoning change sought by a developer except it is instead initiated by the alderman on behalf of the residents.

But Sue and her neighbors don’t believe their current alderman would be responsive to their idea.”It seems like there isn’t a lot of transparency, and people don’t know that there will be a development next door until the bulldozers show up,” Sue says. “If you had a responsive alderman who had lots of block meetings, maybe it would make a difference.”

If your current alderman isn’t responsive, I say respond by voting someone else in.

Your alderman can act with a heavy thumb to a zoning issue –on behalf of either developer or resident. It’s how the alderman “sways” that makes residents either happy or sad.

“Zoning is very democratic with a small ‘d,’ in a good sense,” zoning attorney Warren Silver says. “The way the process is set up it gives a lot of sway to the alderman. I think that’s a good thing because by and large it empowers the community.”

The role of an “empowered” community in this complex transaction that I’ll call “Building the Neighborhood We Want,” is to elect an alderman who will be an honest steward of the responsibility awarded. That means working with us in partnership.

It’s a big picture approach.

Many aldermen have held power over several re-elections by handing out chits of favor and influence and by skillfully exercising aldermanic privilege.

This tactical rather than strategic approach is like junk food. It takes the edge off hunger but doesn’t nourish you. Chicagoans are ready for better. I wager come election day, voters like my friend Sue might give back to their aldermen a taste of what they’ve been dishing out.


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The Chicago municipal election is Tuesday, Feb. 27, but you can vote today at an early voting site.

For more information, go to www.suntimes.com/webconnect and find links to:

– Chicago Zoning Department, where you can see how your block is zoned.

– Chicago City Council

– Chicago Board of Elections

– The Right Place, our blog

Credit: The Chicago Sun-Times -COPYRIGHT- © 2007 Chicago Sun-Times. All rights reserved.