By: Natalie Jachymiak and Ian Richardson
With Chicago being home to 2.7 million people spread over more than 100 diverse neighborhoods, and with the city modernizing some of its construction codes for the coming years. Something that could impact aldermanic control over building codes in those neighborhoods.
Since 2015, the city has been in the middle of a multi-year effort in order to revisit Chicago constructions codes that have been established within the last hundred years. In order to realign these construction codes, the city has been looking at widely-used model construction codes, while maintaining past established requirements that are familiar to local conditions.
Building permits are required before beginning most construction projects and are made to certify that the construction involved fulfills the minimum standards of safety that have been established by the Chicago Building Code.
This creates minimum standards for construction and other projects involving alterations, repairs, maintenance and demolitions of buildings and other structures. The Chicago City Council has established these standards in order to protect public health, safety and welfare.
If a building permit is applied for that does not meet the requirements of the zoning laws of the various 50 Wards of Chicago that is when the Aldermen get involved. At the end of the article is a graphic which briefly explains the process of obtaining a building permit within Chicago.
The Alderman of each Ward has complete control over the zoning laws in their jurisdiction. This system is not common practice among other cities throughout the country, in fact it is pretty unique to Chicago. This system removes all checks and balances with the Alderman having complete control over what types of things can and cannot be built in their Ward.
“You basically have 50 different decision makers, making the decisions in their own particular jurisdictions, and there’s really no checks or balances on those decisions. If an Alderman says he or she wants to change the Zoning for a particular project, no matter how different it is than the zoning districts in the surrounding area or how much it exceeds the underlying zoning if the alderman says they’re in favor of it, it happens and if they said that are against it, it doesn’t happen,” said Paul Sajovec, the chief of staff for the 32nd Ward Alderman while explaining what is known as “aldermanic prerogative.”
While analyzing new construction permits that were granted within the last year, large variances existed between certain Chicago Wards. New Construction and Renovation permits include any new projects or rehabilitations of existing buildings. Not all Wards are represented within this analysis, as the data only shows Wards that have been granted at least one permit within the last year.
Below is an interactive map which shows the different Wards of Chicago and all the new construction permits approved within 2019,
The data presented that the most New Construction Building permits were granted to Ward 42 (Streeterville), Ward 32 (Wicker Park), Ward 1, Ward 25 (Near West Side) and Ward 2 (Near South Side) in which a total of 316 new construction permits being granted. In comparison, Ward 8 (South Side), Ward 11 (Lower West Side), Ward 6 (South Side), Ward 21 (South Side) and Ward 26 (West Side) received the least amount of new construction permits within this data with a total of 20 new construction permits being granted.
The Wards that collected 316 new construction permits, common patterns exist based on demographics and other factors. Based on data collected in 2015 on the City of Chicago Data Portal, these top 5 Wards (42, 32, 1, 25 and 2) have an average White demographic of 57.3% with a median of 69.46%. Within these same Wards the average Black demographic is 6.12% with a medium of 6%, the average Hispanic demographic is 26.52% with a medium of 18.11% , and the average Asian demographic is 9.78% and the medium is 7.33%.
When looking at the Wards that were granted 20 new building permits within the last year, we also see common patterns with demographics represented. Based on the same data, the average White demographic of these Wards is 11.62% with a medium of .56%. The average Black demographic is 61.98% with a medium of 96.9%, the average Hispanic demographic is 18.43% with a medium of 1.34% , and the average Asian demographic is 7.12% with a medium of .15%.
Ward 42, which was granted the most new construction permits within the last year contains some of Chicago’s most well known landmarks including the Magnificent Mile, Millenium Park, and Navy Pier. Since this Ward contains so many tourist spots, it may make it quicker for new construction to be granted within these areas.
Here’s a chart illustrating the amount of building permits granted to each of these Wards:
Michael Magee, CEO of Prime Electric Co which handles the electrical contracts for many iconic Chicago buildings including the Willis Tower, shared his experience with the process of obtaining building permits in the Loop saying,
“Every month we pull a monthly permit for these buildings. and we do it online, they’ve modernized it over the last 5-10 years and it’s that simple… let’s say we have 30-40 buildings we just pull them all at once and write the city a check or pay online or with a credit card, whatever it is, and we’re done with it in moments.”
Ward 2 also holds historical landmarks such as the Drake Hotel. Roughly 73% of communities within these Wards fall under a White demographic while around 6% of these communities fall under a Black demographic. Large variances like these become important to look at when we see such a large difference in new construction permits being granted.
It also becomes important to look at Wards 1, which contains northern neighborhoods such as Wicker Park, West Town, Ukranian Village, and Logan Square, and 25, which covers southern Chicago neighborhoods such as Pilsen, Greek Town, China Town, and Little Italy. The White demographic does not dominate these Wards, yet they were granted a substantial amount of new construction permits.
These two areas have been largely gentrified within the last decade, so new construction becomes a necessity in order for these neighborhoods to renovate. Although renovation is sought out to be a beneficial move, these adjustments have forced certain communities to leave the areas with new construction hiking up prices for individuals and families to comfortably live.
While speaking with the business owner of Smoke Shop Pipes and Stuff, he spoke about the success of his business and how he makes his decisions when opening new shops within Chicago. Hamd Kamal owns multiple smoke shops within the Chicago area, with one of them being located in Little Italy, which is located within Ward 25. As Ward 25 has had some of the most new building permits granted within the last year, it was interesting to hear how his business functions within this location. He owns shops in Wicker Park, Wrigleyville, and other shops within the suburbs of Chicago. When asked about what his most popular location was he mentioned that Little Italy receives the most traction.
“The demographics played a key factor in determining the location, it’s a great area there’s a lot of traction, Little Italy is very popular, there is a lot of history in the area as well, so those factors played a key edition in opening the shop.”
I also asked if he has seen an increase in buildings being built within the last year and he responded with,
“Yes I know one of the main buildings is the library that just went up right across the street, so that was huge for the area. I know they are also doing a bigger redevelopment across the street where there’s a hotel coming”
He also mentioned how the medical district is expanding and that they have plans to reconstruct and build some new structures. Kamal has plans to open up businesses within the Pilsen area as he mentions that the demographics and the increase of new construction within the area play an important role.
From this we can see how gentrification is allowing businesses to expand as these areas are becoming popular commodities for business owners. For business owners, new construction within these areas serve as a benefit in relation to traction of customers.
Although beneficial, sometimes new construction isn’t always wanted by communities as it makes it more expensive for these communities to live comfortably, as we see what has happened within Wards 1 and 25. This is where the aldermanic prerogative mentioned earlier can really either benefit or harm the community living within a Ward.
“Some people say that the system that Chicago has actually gives the community more influence because if the decision wasn’t up to the alderman but it is just based on whatever the zoning was… there’s not much of a way for them to object,” said Paul Sajovec, on whether the aldermanic system positively or negatively affects communities. “If your elected representative, your alderman, supports something and you don’t like it, you can complain to your alderman to try to convince him not to make that decision.”
“The flip side of that is that you know, the alderman doesn’t have to necessarily listen to that input or the alderman can try to obfuscate the process such that they create the appearance that they are listening to what their constituents want, but they are really only doing things that might be inconsistent with what they are saying.”
To put it simply, Sajovec is saying that although the community is able to plead with their Alderman about a possible new development there is no guarantee that the Alderman will make their decision in the interest of the community. Instead, the system allows for the Alderman to work in whatever interests he chooses, whether it be his own, communities, corporations or developer’s interests.
The dichotomy of new development in neighborhoods is a double edged sword. These new developments can improve the quality of living and appearance for neighborhoods but with that can often come unwanted (by those who reside there) consequences. The developments can raise the price of living in the neighborhood as the perceived quality of the neighborhood is raised and new people more in, oftentimes becoming too expensive to those who call it home as the area becomes “updated” and gentrified. With all the power for drastic change being held in the hands of one individual there’s no telling how quickly a neighborhood could change.