by Gabriel Piemonte
(Note: A post on this same topic appears on this page, with lots of excellent data and analysis.)
Ald. Leslie Hairston has set off a firestorm in South Shore with an announcement that she will rezone nearly all of 71st Street to residential – and single-family residential, at that. Anyone seeking to open a business on the street would have to gain a zoning change. Obviously, a person who wanted to build a single-family home would not need a zoning variance, but she presumably does not expect that to happen. The rationale behind this is that she wants to control what sorts of businesses open on the street.
The justification is the Obama Center. More and better businesses will want to come to 71st Street because of the presidential center (being built on Stony Island Avenue between 60th and 63rd streets) and she wants to be able to control whether those businesses can open. In an interview with an online news agency, she said she was tired of businesses like dollar stores coming to 71st Street. This is her way of managing who opens up shop. Otherwise, she says, the process is too slow for forcing out bad businesses.
We will set aside for the moment the problem that every developer and politician on the South Side seems to see streets paved with gold just for them because of the Obama Center. The most immediate problem with Hairston’s plan is that she is gaming the zoning system. Her approach assumes that the system does not work. That essentially negates her credibility as a part of that same system.
Zoning is an effort to treat land use with some sense of fairness and justice. As boring as it is on the surface, it is actually a very important idea. We get together, agree on how land should be used for the good of the community, and we stick to that. It is a social contract. Hairston is throwing out that idea and saying that she should be the keeper of the good. That is literally monarchy – rule by the one.
I am not saying that Hairston’s assessment is necessarily wrong, but I am saying her reaction to it is. If the traditional political system is failing the community, it is the moral responsibility of the representatives of that system to return the power to the people, as much as is possible. Hairston is doing the opposite. She is essentially saying that the system will not protect the community, so she should be trusted to protect it – because she is Leslie Hairston. But that’s not a good enough reason. It doesn’t really make any sense at all.
The problem with Hairston’s approach is that it is completely reactionary and lacks big-picture thinking. What is needed is greater community input not less. Zoning is an effort to impose the will of the community on private individuals who buy or rent property and want to do as they will with it. The “Let Leslie Decide” approach gives ordinary residents even less input.
Residents need a way to have more oversight over development in the ward. I have been advocating local development councils for our communities as a way to achieve this. Obviously, Hairston’s proposal has to be opposed immediately, so a council does not help with the short-term problem, but one can see where a council will likely reduce the sorts of incidents that Hairston fears so much that she wants to rezone a whole street over them. A businessperson might think it is worthwhile to work around an alderman, but no one is going to move their business into a neighborhood and alienate their potential customers. Business people would appear in front of a council elected by the people they want to serve.
Hairston’s impulse is that the community should know about businesses before they open. That’s fine, but she is not the community. Instead of being a bully and costing people lots of money to rezone a space just to make it usable, she should promote a culture of openness and neighborliness. People who want to do business in the ward should feel as though telling the local alderman about it will help their business thrive. There’s something fundamentally wrong with a system where people are sneaking past the alderman to offer services to the community. Legally changing a commercial street into a residential street isn’t going to fix this dysfunction and distrust.
Short term, we need to resist this proposal – and when I say we, I mean every single resident of the Fifth Ward. We have to be united in saying that the alderman does not have legislative fiat. Her job is to execute the will of the people. She has to find another way.
Long term, we have to set up councils in the neighborhoods included in Hairston’s ward, and in the other neighborhoods impacted by the Obama Presidential Center, especially the three neighborhoods in which new construction would be managed by the proposed development corporation I have written about in other posts. Everybody is money- and power-crazy because of the Obama Center. They all think it is their ticket. The politicians in our wards have to be more closely controlled by the electorate, because they are going to be pressured to build build build and to cut corners to do so. Hairston’s proposal is a very good example of how shortsighted politicians become when there is an opportunity for gain.
(There will be a community-led meeting very soon about this rezoning proposal. If you would like to be informed about this and other related community meetings, please contact the author or sign up for updates at southsideunited.org.)