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So what's the deal with planning in Chicago?

jordanb

Cyburbian
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3,232
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25
I've gotten vives from this forum that Chicago is not a good place to be a planner. Why is that, exactly? Is it too political, too select? I'd think there'd be plenty of opportunity in this town with the building boom and upcoming rezoning binge.
 

Cardinal

Cyburbian
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10,081
Points
34
I can only answer this for the Chicago region. I spent my first 3+ years in the Chicago 'burbs. The problem is that:

1. Communities compete. There is (or at least, was) no real effort to coordinate with surrounding communities. Land grabs, to annex some plum piece of ground, were not common. This even happened where there were boundary agreements. Competition, rather than cooperation, is the rule.

2. Politics. Forget about which party. Democrats in Chicago or Republicans in the suburbs, it does not matter. These people were looking out for themselves and their interests, and they could make working for government hell.

3. Is there a state government? I often tell people that within the first few days of coming to Wisconsin, I had received calls from three different people in the Wisconsin Department of Commerce, one from the county, one from the UW-Madison, one from each of the electric utilities, and others as well. All welcomed me and offered to come meet with me to talk about the community. In three years in Illinois, I once met somebody from the state, after calling them to set up a time to go to their office.
 

prudence

Cyburbian
Messages
688
Points
20
I could not agree more with Michael...I spent time in Chicagoland, and his assessment is dead on.

The communities compete thanks to local sales tax revenue...and decisionmaking is very selfish and typically has not regard for Statutes and Ordinances...

I would like to add that not just the municipalities comptete, but ALL agencies compete with each other and the communities...IDOT, NIPC, NiCOR, Com-Ed...
 

jordanb

Cyburbian
Messages
3,232
Points
25
Well, I'd like to specifiy that I was talking about working in the City of Chicago, not the suburbs really. So jobs are available with the city but they're just heavily politicized?
 

pete-rock

Cyburbian
Messages
1,551
Points
24
jordanb said:
Well, I'd like to specifiy that I was talking about working in the City of Chicago, not the suburbs really. So jobs are available with the city but they're just heavily politicized?
I'm very familiar with planning in the City of Chicago. Jobs are available with the City, and they are heavily politicized. The budget crunch has led to a hiring freeze for now, but if you know an alderman maybe something could be worked out. More about aldermen in a minute.

Michael and Prudence are dead on about community competition and the political environment of planning in the Chicago area. But it was the City of Chicago itself that established the politcal culture.

Imagine Chicago's 50 wards being independent municipalities like the suburbs. In the city itself, all 50 aldermen compete with each other in the same way to bring new development to their wards, and all are very involved in the details of the ward's development. In that respect they are all like "little mayors." I think the Mayor, to some extent, encourages the competition, thinking the city benefits overall. The biggest problem is that the knowledge and capacity of the aldermen varies GREATLY, so that some know exactly how to pursue redevelopment and others really lack the understanding. In all respects, aldermen in Chicago control neighborhood redevelopment. If they understand redevelopment, great things happen. If they don't, the ward may languish. And frankly, some aldermen have a political interest in not having their wards redevelop.

As for planners...

There is no comprehensive plan that serves as a framework for development, and there hasn't been a citywide plan since 1957 (there have been plans in the form of neighborhood TIF and redevelopment area plans and plans for the central area, but they are never prepared in any larger context). Zoning is more of a placeholder than an actual tool to control or direct development. Aldermen regularly introduce zoning changes in their ward to City Council, and are never -- never -- turned down. It's call "aldermanic prerogative" -- aldermen will always support another aldermen's changes in his/her ward, and staff is expected to support the changes as well. Some changes make sense, many don't. But there is no plan by which planners can objectively agree with or challenge such changes. In fact, the changes proposed by the Zoning Reform Commission are being held up by City Council because the aldermen would lose some control in zoning matters.

Projects move forward because an alderman will call you and say something like, "This developer has a great idea to build a senior citizen complex next to the intermodal facility. Make it happen." Planners are judged (by the Mayor's Office and the aldermen) by their ability to serve and please the aldermen. So if you can get that industrial zoning changed to residential (with the alderman's support, of course), get the Dept. of Environment to handle any cleanup at the city's expense, corral as many of the city's incentives as you can and recommend plan approval despite the fact there are misgivings about the design and layout, you'll do just fine.

Over one hundred years ago, a colorful alderman once said, "Chicago ain't ready for no reform." Politically, there's a whole lot of truth to that.
 

Cardinal

Cyburbian
Messages
10,081
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34
In defense of Chicago, I do admire their "Retail Chicago" program, within the Department of Planning. It is aimed at attracting commercial uses to neighborhoods, works closely with neighborhood organizations, and has been successful. It would be a good model for other cities, or even states.
 

jordanb

Cyburbian
Messages
3,232
Points
25
Pete-rock wrote:
The biggest problem is that the knowledge and capacity of the aldermen varies GREATLY, so that some know exactly how to pursue redevelopment and others really lack the understanding. In all respects, aldermen in Chicago control neighborhood redevelopment.
I've always wondered why some areas gentrify seemingly against all odds while others with so much potential languish. I'm sure this is a big reason why. It also explains why some ward bounderies can be seen in arial photographs and by looking down the street.

Aldermen regularly introduce zoning changes in their ward to City Council, and are never -- never -- turned down. It's call "aldermanic prerogative"
I've seen that happen as well. Many times I agree with the zoning change though.

Aldermen regularly introduce zoning changes in their ward to City Council, and are never -- never -- turned down. It's call "aldermanic prerogative"
Honestly, maybe I'm jaded, but I'm pretty surpised that that's limited to Chicago. I would have suspected that every major city operated in a similar fashion. Also, I always thought that that was the purpose of a public servant, to implement the policies that their elected leaders mandate. Of course, a good executive should be willing to listen to their staff as the staff are usually the experts. I'm sure that virtue varies between aldermen.

At any rate, I do think that trying to get a job with the city would severly limit my ability to be an advocate for positive change. Perhaps I should try to get a job with the state when I get out of school (I could probably leverage my current job with that). That would give me enough insulation from the people I'm aggravating to provide job security.
 

pete-rock

Cyburbian
Messages
1,551
Points
24
Michael Stumpf said:
In defense of Chicago, I do admire their "Retail Chicago" program, within the Department of Planning. It is aimed at attracting commercial uses to neighborhoods, works closely with neighborhood organizations, and has been successful. It would be a good model for other cities, or even states.
You're right, Mike. Retail Chicago has been great for marketing city neighborhoods to retailers, and it's the kind of tool other cities could benefit from. I worked closely with them, and they've done a great job just changing the general perception of city neighborhoods with retailers.
 

pete-rock

Cyburbian
Messages
1,551
Points
24
jordanb said:
Also, I always thought that that was the purpose of a public servant, to implement the policies that their elected leaders mandate. Of course, a good executive should be willing to listen to their staff as the staff are usually the experts. I'm sure that virtue varies between aldermen.
Sorry if I sounded too cynical in the earlier post.

My feeling is that planners are not given the opportunity to appropriately plan in Chicago, and aldermen maintain control by keeping redevelopment as a political process.

There is no "one" planning and development policy in Chicago; there are hundreds of smaller policies in the form of TIF plans, old urban renewal plans, redevelopment area plans and rezonings made over the years that usually serve the wishes of the alderman who initiated the policy and are not part of any larger planning context. Could, for example, the North/Clybourn Corridor been better planned with less commercial uses, to lessen traffic congestion? Sure. An overall plan for the city may have called for more commercial development in adjacent areas. But aldermen lose some control if there is a general comprehensive plan and a zoning ordinance that is in accordance with the plan.
 
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