• Alex Nitkin
    JUL 20, 2022

    Transit-focused housing ordinance clears committee as skeptical aldermen seek assurances on predictability — and blast CTA

    Juan Sebastian Arias, deputy policy director for Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, presents details on the “Connected Communities Ordinance” to the City Council on Tuesday.

    A years-in-the-making policy push to lay the groundwork for denser housing construction near the city’s transit nodes cleared a key committee hurdle after a marathon meeting on Tuesday, setting it up for final passage by the City Council during its meeting on Wednesday.

    A handful of aldermen lit into the sweeping 38-page ordinance as an attack on aldermanic power and private property rights, and more were skeptical that the rule changes would accomplish their goals without added funding to back it. But the proposal ultimately cleared the committee in a lopsided 15-4 vote, portending easy passage in the City Council barring parliamentary roadblocks that could still slow it down.

    The City Council Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards spent more than three hours on Tuesday probing Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s “Connected Communities Ordinance” (O2022-2000) before voting to push it forward.  

    Housing officials in Lightfoot’s administration teased the bundle of more than a dozen new housing, zoning and transportation policies in May and formally introduced it last month. They framed it as the natural legislative follow-through of the “Equitable Transit-Oriented Development” policy roadmap officials proposed in 2021 to expand dense, transit-adjacent housing construction beyond the city’s hottest neighborhoods.     


    Chicago Department of Housing Comm. Marisa Novara noted during a news conference to promote the ordinance before Tuesday’s meeting that it was “not the city’s first rodeo when it comes to transit-oriented development.”  

    Chicago’s policy of offering density bonuses and waiving parking requirements near transit stations originated under Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2013, and his administration pushed through modest expansions in 2015 and 2019. But around 90 percent of developments that took advantage of the rules were constricted to the city’s North or Northwest Side.  

    Lightfoot’s proposal would more than triple the policy’s reach by extending it to within a half-mile of train stations all over the city and to within a quarter mile of the city’s busiest bus corridors.  

    “This ordinance is one of many tools that we are using to address inequities by race and geography of how investment occurs across the city so that we can better connect people to the jobs, homes and services that they need,” Novara said.  

    The ordinance would also turn the city’s policy sharply to the benefit of pedestrians and transit users at the expense of drivers by setting the city’s first-ever cap on new parking in transit-oriented development zones, prohibiting more than one new space for every two new apartments unless the developer appeals to the city’s Department of Planning and Development. It would also require developers to score approval from city planning officials before building car-centric infrastructure, like curb cuts or surface parking lots, in any new development in a transit-oriented development zone.   

    “This ordinance seeks to…make streets safer for all residents who need to use them to get to the train,” Lightfoot deputy policy director Juan Sebastian Arias told committee members. “We want to protect sidewalk user safety and create more walkable, accessible sidewalks, including by limiting how many times automobiles can interrupt the pedestrian right-of-way.”  

    Finally, the ordinance toughens affordability requirements for housing developers who take advantage of transit-oriented development benefits, it forbids the construction of single-family homes in apartment-dominated districts in gentrifying neighborhoods, and it triggers automatic committee votes for affordable housing proposals.  

    An earlier version of the proposal would have automatically allowed the construction of three-flat apartment buildings in wealthy, transit-rich parts of the city. But that provision was dropped in the face of heavy opposition from the City Council, whose members are accustomed to being asked permission before new apartments are built in their wards.  

    Related: Watered-down rewrite of Lightfoot’s inclusive development ordinance to face aldermen in committee  

    “This ordinance does not give developers the ability to build anything by right that doesn’t already exist under the current [transit-oriented development] rules,” Arias said. “To be able to use the extra floor area, density or height requires council action today, and under this proposed ordinance, City Council and individual council members still have the exact same control.”  

    Some aldermen, like Ald. Walter Burnett (27), Ald. James Cappleman (46) and Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22) voiced unreserved support for the plan. Rodriguez said he could not “remember a piece of legislation that combines public safety with affordable housing, creating density and safer communities in such a comprehensive package.”  

    Others, like Ald. Pat Dowell (3), said they struggled to see how the relaxed rules would lure developers to stretches of the South and West Side that have been ignored for decades if the plan does not come with a companion funding commitment.  

    “To me, this ordinance is nothing if we aren’t going to put some meat on the bones,” Dowell said. “It will go to the wayside, just like Empowerment Zones and Enterprise Zones in our communities on the South and West Side.”  

    Still, Dowell said she would support the proposal on the condition that housing officials convene a “working group” to make sure the ordinance does not “have an unintentional impact” on the city’s 26-mile historic boulevard system.  

    Ald. David Moore (17) and Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6) also voted “yes,” even though they said they had been let down before by policies that promised to attract new development around transit.  

    “Will this result in more development?” asked Sawyer, who announced a run for mayor last month. “Because I do not want to pass something, and then when all of us are attempting to get something done in affected areas, nothing happens.”  

    Ald. Raymond Lopez (15) objected to the provision that would expand the “anti-deconversion” rules already binding in Pilsen and the 606 area to gentrifying neighborhoods across the city. Housing officials have credited the policy for preventing developers from hollowing out affordable small apartment buildings, but Lopez has been a staunch opponent, saying it binds property owners from doing what they want with their buildings.  

    Related:  One year on, backers of controversial anti-gentrification measures take victory lap as teardowns, gut-jobs plummet    

    “I have a hard time telling a family member who’s owned a two- or three-flat for 50 years…that they are not allowed to de-convert their own private property,” Lopez said. “I think it’s grossly unfair to tell that to people who have stuck by neighborhoods through their challenges and now rightly deserve the opportunity to reap the benefits of their persistence.”  

    Ald. Brian Hopkins (2) also opposed the ordinance but said he did so only out of objection to the provision that would trigger automatic votes on affordable proposals if they go unheard for one year.  

    “I don’t know why you would include this poison pill,” Hopkins said. “It is so objectionable, it is not a precedent we want to set, it is not a responsible way to govern, and I don’t want to start opening the door to where committees of this City Council will be forced to take votes on an artificial timeframe.”  

    Ald. Brendan Reilly (42) agreed, predicting that “less scrupulous developers who don’t want to engage with the community and negotiate public benefits can simply use this mechanism to run out the clock, knowing they’re going to get a vote.”  

    Lopez, Hopkins, Reilly and Ald. Anthony Beale (9) were the only committee members who voted against the ordinance.  

    Ald. Matt Martin (47) and Ald. Scott Waguespack (32) were among the plan’s wholehearted supporters but used Tuesday’s hearing as an opportunity to scold leaders of the CTA for their lack of involvement in its drafting. They said a city policy that emphasizes transit use will only work if the transit is reliable — a standard they say the agency is failing to meet.  

    “The CTA needs to get their act together — it is absolutely abysmal,” Waguespack said. “And I’m not saying they should have showed up here today and explain what they’re doing, but if they’re going to be a part of [equitable transit-oriented development], they need to get their butts to the table.”  

    Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35) introduced a resolution (R2022-688) with more than 20 backers last month calling for hearings on the “Chicago Transit Authority's minimized train and bus services, inconsistent train schedules, and train and bus delays.” As of Tuesday, no such hearing had been publicly scheduled.  

    The zoning committee also approved all other items included in The Daily Line’s preview of the meeting, including a trailer ordinance (O2022-1752) to the proposal (O2022-1753) from Ald. Maria Hadden(49) that passed the City Council last month adding new cooling requirements for large apartment buildings.   

    Related: Cooling requirements clear committee after Hadden agrees to put heating schedule rules on ice    

    Hadden agreed last month to scoop out one provision regulating the schedule of when buildings with “two-pipe” heating and cooling systems switch from cooling to heating because it came under criticism from Hopkins, who argued building owners should be allowed to set their own dates of when they switch. But Chicago Department of Buildings Comm. Matthew Beaudet argued on Tuesday that “there have to be some statutory dates and temperatures.”  

    The ordinance, which pushes the requirement for buildings to supply heating from Sept. 15 to Oct. 1, passed on Tuesday over Hopkins’ dissent. 

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