Community input an illusion

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th, right) meets in his ward office with residents concerned about a proposed zoning change. (Tribune photo / Chuck Berman)

Chicago aldermen wield near-absolute power over development in their wards, but most insist they get neighborhood input from community groups or handpicked advisory panels before approving or rejecting projects.

What they don't say is that those groups often are stacked with real estate agents, developers and campaign donors with vested interests in the zoning decisions made by the aldermen.

One alderman backed zoning changes that let a developer tear down several modest homes on the Near West Side and replace them with three-story condos, projects that were OKd by a community group.

The group was familiar with the developer -- he's a longtime leader of the organization.

Another alderman got the backing of his own advisory panel before he approved the zoning change for a redevelopment project in Logan Square, a neighborhood in the midst of the city's gentrification wave. The owner of the land happened to sit on the panel. He sold the property, with its valuable zoning change, for nearly $1 million more than he had paid less than two years earlier.

An unprecedented Tribune investigation, including an analysis of 5,700 zoning changes over the last 10 years, found city neighborhoods being remade by a development boom greased by millions of dollars in political donations to aldermen.

As neighborhoods are transformed, advisory groups frequently offer no more than the illusion of community input. But the political cover they provide for aldermen is very real.

Even Ald. William J.P. Banks (36th), the longtime chairman of the City Council's Zoning Committee, doubts that recommendations from committees created by aldermen represent true community sentiment. Banks estimates that about half of the city's 50 aldermen appoint their own advisory panels.

"Any alderman can create a committee and make them do what you want them to do, or the applicants [for zoning changes] can stack the committee," Banks said.

In zoning matters, the City Council's unwritten rule is that aldermen retain ultimate say over what gets built in their wards.

Developers seeking valuable zoning changes that allow them to build bigger and taller projects often donate to the campaigns of aldermen. The city's ethics ordinance limits the size of campaign donations to aldermen from people seeking zoning changes, but the provision doesn't prevent aldermen from receiving additional donations from companies with ties to those same applicants.

Billed by many council members as part-buffer, part-sounding board, community groups and aldermanic advisory panels offer a way to measure grass-roots support and get expert advice before zoning decisions are made. In fact, some community groups have forced concessions from developers, helping avert potential problems with traffic and parking or providing input on the design of new buildings.

But residents across the city complain that they don't have access to their alderman's select panel, or that they're frustrated when they go to community meetings only to find that real estate interests dominate the debate.

Million-dollar markup

When Ald. Rey Colon (35th) was elected to the City Council in 2003, he promised to form an advisory panel to give residents a greater voice in the development of the rapidly gentrifying Logan Square area.

In 2006, Colon sponsored a zoning change for 30 new condos with first-floor storefronts at Armitage Avenue and Whipple Street after his handpicked panel gave its blessing.

Among the panel members was Mark Fishman -- a major campaign contributor to Colon.

The developer for the project? That was Fishman too.

But the land remains undeveloped. Shortly after getting the zoning change, Fishman sold the property for $2.35 million. He had bought it 20 months earlier for less than $1.4 million.