Code of Silence | Letters | Chicago Reader

Code of Silence 

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To the editor:

I'm sorry that Ben Joravsky decided that the article "Border War" (December 21) should be heavy on personalities and light on what really matters.

Though it makes for a more colorful story, this should not have been about two developers, in a love triangle with the alderman, getting macho over a couple of lots in Bucktown. That belongs in News of the Weird. What should concern us is something never even mentioned in the article: this very year, for the first time in 45 years, Chicago's famous zoning law is being rewritten from scratch, top to bottom. This is the big news; this and its surrounding controversy are what is worth newsprint. Berman v. GBD Development should be a timely footnote to that.

A perennial outrage, it's well known that Chicagoans are inadequately informed about their rights in neighborhood management and the importance of these rights. Systematic insufficient notification of zoning hearings is a major part of this dysfunction. Wayne Berman winning his case may help in a small way, but long before press time it was looking as though the parties were about to settle, and that would leave no new precedent in case law. So much for the newsprint.

On a broader and more urgent level, there seems to be a remarkable parallel in notification problems regarding the city's very plans to rewrite the code. Show of hands: How many of you care about how your neighborhood develops? How many of you were notified about the rewrite plans? In its official organ, the Zoning Reform Commission boasted that 200 people attended one of their workshops last June. But in a city of hundreds of thousands of concerned parties, this is a miserable showing. The result threatens to be a zoning ordinance with even fewer checks and balances.

Beyond patching the existing code, how can neighbors really be better involved in zoning matters without having to join a politically dodgy community group, flail their arms like a lone wild activist, or give their alderman a back rub? If you were to ask me--the Reader didn't--I would say that the first step should be to enact new legislation to provide unmistakable public notice.

It's been shown that existing methods of notification, including certified mail and newspaper classifieds, are inadequate in this day and age. However, in many other jurisdictions, we have seen huge four-by-eight-foot Proposed Zoning Variance billboards on all publicly visible sides of the lots. These signs, mandated by law, are loud and clear, they are inexpensive, and they provide details about the proposed change as well as contact information for the applicant and the alderman, the rights of the parties, and the dates of any hearings. There's just one problem: Chicago doesn't use these signs. This low-tech approach is what I believe is needed in a busy city to inform the public generously about changes that will affect their lives. Current experiments by the city involve tiny cardboard squares wrapped around light posts. But we're not talking about street cleaning or a church bake sale.

If we want a zoning code that responds to our needs, concerned citizens and groups must write the Mayor's Zoning Reform Commission in room 1004 of City Hall, 121 N. LaSalle, 312-744-2050, and urge them to implement sweeping changes in the notification measures. Their plan is to have the rewrite swiftly completed within the next few months, and what little public hearing was tolerated is already closed.

Peter Zelchenko

Flailing his arms in West Town

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