Being a Chicago alderman has many perks. One of the most powerful is called aldermanic privilege: the longstanding, though informal, practice of City Council giving individual aldermen deference regarding decisions impacting their respective wards.
Even though the law does not require it, if a business desires a zoning change or a permit, City Council generally leaves the determination up to the alderman of the ward in which the business resides.
This practice creates an environment in which aldermen act as gatekeepers to the residents and businesses of their wards, with essentially no checks and balances.
Chicago aldermen have immense power to shape how city residents are allowed to live and how businesses can either survive or wither under choking city regulations and restrictions.
One of the most common tools aldermen have at their disposal is the ability to manipulate technical and complex zoning laws.
An ongoing battle between Chicago’s Double Door music venue, the venue’s building owners and Alderman Proco Joe Moreno (1st Ward) is a telling example of how zoning laws, zoning changes and political threats can be used to inflict personal agendas and punish those who aren’t politically connected.
Business disputes turning political
The Double Door music hall in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood had been a staple in Chicago’s live music scene. But, in 2016, financial and legal disputes between the club owners and the owner of the building that housed the club (1572 N. Milwaukee Ave.) led to Double Door being evicted from its location after violating its lease and losing a court battle with the building owner.
On February 6, 2017, six months after the Double Door lease expired, with no lease renewal submitted, the building owner requested that the venue leave peacefully.
That’s when Alderman Moreno interfered in a routine private business dispute to attempt to force a building owner to rent to a specific tenant (Double Door)—even after a court ordered the tenant to leave the building.
Moreno represents Chicago’s 1st Ward encompassing the Wicker Park neighborhood where the building that housed Double Door is located. Through his power to change zoning and his influence at City Hall, Alderman Moreno acted as a real estate agent, lawyer and manager for the Double Door owners.
These actions go far beyond an alderman attempting to help businesses and residents in his ward. Regardless of the players, it is wrong and possibly illegal for an elected official to use his or her official power to try to coerce a business to do something against its will. Alderman Moreno crossed this line multiple times.
Spot zoning and influence
During the dispute and court case between the owners of Double Door and the 1572 N. Milwaukee building owners, Alderman Moreno introduced a downzoning change to the city’s zoning committee.
The zoning change was proposed only for the 1572 N. Milwaukee building.
Changing the zoning of a single building to zoning different from the surrounding area is known as spot zoning or “the process of singling out a small parcel of land for a use classification totally different from that of the surrounding…”[i]
The proposed downzoning change is currently being “held” in committee and has not been discussed or voted on in any committee meeting. The downzoning proposal could potentially be brought up for a vote any time between now and the next aldermanic election in 2019.
If passed, the spot-zoning proposal would downgrade the building’s zoning and restrict future commercial establishments on the street level and prevent the renewal of leases for the residential tenants of the building.
But even sitting in committee, the proposal looms as a threat to what types of businesses would be allowed to buy or rent the building—potentially costing the building owner thousands in lost revenue.
Local governments have used spot zoning to coerce or punish businesses or building owners into falling in line with an administration’s goal. Courts have ruled[ii] that “unreasonable, capricious and discriminatory” spot zoning is illegal and can be reversed, but only after a potentially costly legal battle.
Moreno initially gave no reason for introducing the proposal to downzone the building. But one of Double Door’s owners, Sean Mulroney, confirmed to DNAinfo that Alderman Moreno attempted to downzone the building, “to protect Double Door by making the property less appealing to future renters.”
1572 N. Milwaukee Ave. has been zoned as a B3-2 building since 1974, when the building owners bought the property. B3-2 zoning allows for commercial property on the street level and apartments on the upper floors.
All other buildings along the Milwaukee-Damen-North Avenue corridor have B3-2 or greater zoning.The “downzone” proposal will change the building zone to a “B1-1.” This lower zoning classification allows fewer options for the type of commercial or retail renters that would be allowed to occupy the building. In addition, the apartments that are currently occupied on the upper floors would no longer be able to take new leases.
A change in zoning classification can mean a dramatic decrease in property value and major restrictions to what types of businesses and residents can rent space in the building.
Political power being used at the bargaining table
Another example of Alderman Moreno and other city officials using their political power to try to influence and coerce a private business owner comes from a meeting at City Hall.
According to emails[iv] provided to Project Six and CBS-2 Chicago by 1572 N. Milwaukee building owner Brian Strauss and his attorney, James McKay, on February 8, 2017, Strauss and McKay were asked to attend a private meeting at City Hall with the commissioner of the Department of Planning and Development, David Reifman, and Alderman Moreno.
Strauss and McKay attended the meeting without being told what the meeting would be about. Present at the meeting were Alderman Moreno; Alderman Daniel Solis (25th Ward), who is also chairman of the Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards; Moreno’s chief of staff, Raymond Valadez; Commissioner of Planning and Development Reifman; Assistant to the Mayor Claudia Chavez; and Double Door co-owners Sean Mulroney and Joe Shanahan.
This meeting took place after a Cook County court ruled in favor of Strauss and ordered Double Door to vacate the building.
According to Strauss and McKay, Commissioner Reifman and Alderman Moreno attempted to broker a building sale between Double Door and the Strauss family. Also according to Strauss and McKay, Moreno and city officials attempted to work out a deal between Double Door and the landlord for Double Door to stay in the building and pay significantly less rent than what other tenants pay in similar rental spaces.
The Department of Planning and Development and the Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards have immense power over building owners and businesses in the city. Zoning changes can literally dictate what type of businesses can operate in a specific building and to whom a building owner is able to sell or lease a space.
Regardless of what was discussed, a private meeting between a building owner, an alderman inserting himself into a private dispute, and the city officials in charge of zoning, planning and development is inappropriate at best and at worst is an attempt by city officials to intimidate a private business owner.
Alderman Moreno also made clear his intentions to use his aldermanic power during a confrontation with building owner Brian Strauss on February 25, 2017, during Double Door’s court-ordered eviction.
There have been no reported building violations for the 1572 N. Milwaukee building. There is also no evidence of public outcry or demands for a downzoning of the 1572 N. Milwaukee building.
Political donations for Alderman Moreno
The owners of Double Door have donated more than $7,500 in political contributions to Alderman Moreno’s political committees since 2013, including an “in-kind” hosting of a campaign event at Double Door for Alderman Moreno valued at $5,000.
There have been no reported political donations from the owner of 1572 N. Milwaukee to Alderman Moreno.
Preventing politically connected corruption
For any small business, having a superior product or desirable location is a necessity for a successful enterprise. In Chicago, having the blessing of the local alderman is also a requirement for any hope of success or survival.
The power and influence that Chicago’s elected officials hold over city residents and businesses is immense. Some aldermen themselves have even compared their power to the powers of Medieval lords in charge “of their individual fiefdom.”
Alderman Moreno’s involvement in the dispute between the owners of the Double Door and their building landlord is a stark example of the legal, personal and financial retribution that can come at the hand of an alderman.
Alderman Moreno’s move to downzone the 1572 N. Milwaukee building in an attempt to protect the Double Door from being evicted is not a local leader working for the best interests of his constituents—it is an example of an elected official abusing his power to help the politically connected.
Regardless of how someone might feel about the Double Door or the building owner, Alderman Moreno’s strong-arming is wrong and an example of why zoning and licensing laws must change.
Over the past 30 years, the City of Chicago’s Board of Ethics has accommodated city officials with passive enforcement and myriad loopholes in its ethics laws. Time and again, Chicagoans have seen city aldermen abuse their power over bureaucratic issues such as zoning, licensing and permitting. These are issues that can, and should, be determined and regulated by independent city agencies—many of which already exist.
Aldermen having such extreme power over bureaucratic issues provides little to no benefit or streamlining for residents and creates a culture ripe for abuse and corruption.
Chicagoans deserve a city government that implements laws and policies based on what is best for all residents, not just those with the ear and pocket of an alderman.
This investigation abides by Project Six’s Guarantee of Quality Scholarship.
[i] Anderson’s American Law of Zoning, 4th Edition, § 5.12 – 1995.
[ii] Davis v. Brown, 851 NE 2d 1198, citing Galt v. County of Cook, 91 NE 2d 395.
[iv] Email chain between City officials, Alderman Moreno, Sean Mulroney, Brian Strauss and James McKay. See reference packet.
[v] Full transcripts of raw video/audio.