by Gabriel Piemonte
The folks at Reclaiming South Shore for Everybody were the first to bring me (and the 464 other people in the group) the news that Leslie Hairston is backing off her plan to rezone all of 71st Street to residential from its current commercial designation. That’s great news. Rightly, she states that there is still a problem to solve: There are too many businesses on that important commercial street that do not further the aspirational vision of South Shore but instead create all sorts of problems from the standpoint of community health. Now, some of those “problems” are in the eye of the beholder, but there is near-consensus that 71st Street could do better. How, if not through zoning tricks, can the community make the change it needs?
The tool I am convinced we need in every South Side neighborhood – and urgently in the ones along the lakefront – is the local development council. These councils should have binding control over development and be popularly elected. Simply put, we cannot trust our aldermen to make prudent decisions at this time, and the downzoning plan is a good example of bad judgement. It is good that this plan is being abandoned, but it must be understood that only pressure from the community made it happen. And bad ideas from South Side aldermen are still in the works – including a plan by Seventh Ward Alderman Greg Mitchell to give him and his peers the power to block just about any business license they like. And we can expect more bad ideas coming down the pike. The construction of the Obama Center is sending business people and ambitious people into fever dreams with the thought of the wealth and status they could gain if they can just hitch their wagons to his star.
The 71st Street downzoning plan was a tacit admission of a business district beyond the control of the alderman. This is actually not very surprising and not entirely the alderman’s fault. What matters in retail business is customers more often than than clout, even in Chicago. If the people like you and you draw steady customers with a legitimate product, you are probably going to be valued. On 71st Street, it seems that not enough of those kinds of entrepreneurs are interested or that they are discouraged somehow. The advantage of a residents’ council over an alderman vetting a business alone is that the alderman is a single person and cannot really do much about customers, most of the time. On the other hand, a large council could make a big impact if every member committed to steering friends and family members to a new business. A prospective business owner would be talking to customers when talking to a council – and would know that. It is not clear that they see the same thing when talking to an alderman.
The council could draw positive change in these situations, but it is also needed to deal with the many other challenges we’re facing from the recent proposals that have been presented to the community, with redevelopment of Jackson Park being the big one. The traditional issue-driven tactics of South Side organizers will not be enough to resist the coming onslaught. We have to stop using ad-hoc protest as our only tool. Our long-term approach must include a council which manages this work as it is proposed and unfolds. We should have the ability to deliberate over every important aspect of the changes coming to the South Lakefront and to shape those proposals as they unfold.
I think about these questions as a resident of Woodlawn and someone who joined what I saw as an innovative attempt to diversify marketplace options for South Shore – and therefore the broader South Side – through the Rainbow Beach Farmers Market. In both our efforts to bring retail to 63rd and our short-lived market on the beach, politics are and were always present, but not in a helpful way. Local politicians did nothing to ease communication between the city and our little crew of farmers market planners, and every developer we talk to in Woodlawn seems to find our vision as a community to be far-fetched – no substantive help from the aldermen here, either. Where I have seen progress, it has come from ordinary people putting in extraordinary effort to improve their communities. That is also the case in fighting off this ill-conceived 71st Street rezoning scheme. It was the work of The Planning Coalition, Reclaiming South Shore for All, every petition signatory, and doubtless many unnamed people who put quiet pressure on the alderman as well.
Leslie Hairston is a skilled politician who knows when to pivot in order to keep frustration with her from going too deep. She ended her quest for total control over businesses on 71st Street before broader questions could be asked about her vision for the ward. Residents of the Fifth Ward should continue the conversation that this rezoning proposal started and extend it beyond 71st Street to include all of the important commercial corridors with significant sections in the ward. Our ultimate goal should be to have systemic control, not episodic control, and long-term vision that is the result of a collective deliberative process. This is the fight we should all be gearing up for, because the fires are going to start erupting in such numbers that our ad-hoc approach will simply not be enough.