by Gabriel Piemonte
When I recently wrote about Leslie Hairston’s proposal to rezone 71st Street to residential from commercial, I got a lot of reactions. Most of them were agreement. Some people wanted to point out that there is another poorly conceived proposal that has been introduced by another South Shore alderman – Ald. Gregory Mitchell of the Seventh Ward. Mitchell wants to give aldermen veto power over any business license applied for in their wards. When the application is filed, the alderman would be alerted and then would have the option to deny the applicant without explanation.
The shortsightedness of this ordinance is breathtaking. No one should be able to deny a business person the right to set up shop based on nothing but their own preference. This approach is deeply flawed and reveals both arrogance and a willingness to circumvent established processes in order to solve an immediate problem.
Mitchell is responsible for this hairbrained scheme, but he is also supported by our other local alderman. Leslie Hairston supports him. Hyde Park, Woodlawn, Washington Park, and Bronzeville are all also represented in the list of supporters. You have to wonder what these people think they were elected to do.
Mitchell’s proposal has been panned by good government advocates and the press, and rightly so. The problem of bad businesses opening up in vacant storefronts is a problem of business climate. It requires hard work to resolve, and the cooperation of the community. Quick fixes won’t do.
Aldermen must see their role as supportive, not dictatorial, especially when dealing with business development. They must attempt to recruit businesses that meet the needs of the community. They must help develop and otherwise support a robust chamber of commerce and bring other resources for businesses to the community. An alderman who is looking for an easy way out is someone who is out of ideas or who cannot tell a good idea from a bad one. Considering that Mitchell is just two years into his first term, that’s a bad sign.
We need aldermen who are willing to enlist the community to solve problems like those in the business districts of South Shore. Trying to get these things done without inspiring the community to help build solutions is like fighting with one hand tied behind your back. It is true that community participation is messy and slows down the deliberative process, but what it produces is typically longer lasting.
I have talked several times about the idea of a neighborhood development council as part of the solution to problems like those Mitchell and Hairston are trying to solve with these shortcuts. A South Shore Development Council, with binding authority and popularly elected, would be an ideal body for a new business to approach for support in setting up in the community. After all, this group would consist of the customers that a new business would be seeking out. A council would have representatives from all over the community, not just one ward. It would be suicide for a new business to ignore such a group.
Mitchell’s ordinance must be left to die in committee. It will lead to all sorts of unintended consequences and put more power in the hands of people who have demonstrated uneven ability to properly use the power they already have. Until residents are respected and treated as peers by aldermen in the struggle to manage change within our neighborhoods, obstacles to positive growth, such as undesirable businesses, will persist. In every ward, thousands of people have struggled with the challenges of living in Chicago neighborhoods, yet all of this expertise is often ignored by aldermen. The time is long past due for a different way of doing things.
(There are community-led meetings in the works regarding this and other issues. If you would like to be informed about these meetings, please contact the author or sign up for updates at southsideunited.org.)