Tagcity council

I wish I wrote a blog about food trucks sometimes: Chicago has made it really difficult for expansion

The Flirty Cupcakes food truck. Photo by Andrew Huff. 

Most of my time (because it’s actually my job) is to blog about transportation. This blog is about cities, and cities are about food trucks, so I guess it’s fine. I neither own a food truck, nor patronize them, but I’m fascinated by the process of how city administrations are handling them, whether through some kind of indifference or making regulations that seem only to make running a food truck more difficult than it should be.

At a “mobile food summit” at the University of Chicago in the spring of 2012, I learned from the sponsor Institute for Justice that they were suing cities for passing unconstitutional laws that regulated business not for health and public safety, their duty, but to protect the economic well-being of other businesses. Based on that knowledge, Chicago did this with the food truck ordinance from July 2012.

The Chicago Tribune reports today, in summary form, the current status of this regulation (here’s the full article):

No city licenses for food trucks

The city hasn’t licensed a single food truck for onboard cooking since the practice was approved in July. Some food truck operators say they’re scared off by the extensive red tape they foresee in the application process. Of the 109 entrepreneurs who have applied for Mobile Food Preparer licenses, none has met the city’s requirements.

I looked this up to know more and I found short commentary on Reason magazine’s blog:

The City of the Big Shoulders is hungry. And 109 entreprising folks want to help feed it. Too bad they’re not allowed to.

For example, the Tribune interviewed proprietors, one of whom said, “While most of its provisions are similar to those in other major cities, [Gabriel] Wiesen said, Chicago’s code includes rules on ventilation and gas line equipment that “are meetable but extremely cumbersome and can raise the price of outfitting a truck by $10,000 to $20,000.”

The bit about the regulation possibly being unconstitutional is that the food trucks with this license (which allows them to cook on the truck) must have a GPS device recording their position during retail hours and cannot operate within 200 feet of a brick-and-mortar restaurant (except in designated mobile food truck loading zones, for a maximum of two hours). Restricting where and when a food preparation business can operate is the tricky part: the city doesn’t regulate this for brick-and-mortar restaurants (except for zoning, which is much more lax and is intended to keep incompatible land uses away from each other).

Apparently Chicago needs NATO/G8 conferences to solidify itself as a world class city

Photos of people participating in Occupy Chicago, back in October 2011. Photo by Ryan Williams. 

It wasn’t a diverse economy, a tech startup community, several well-known universities downtown, the world’s best collection of architecture, or any of that other crap that we need for others to pay attention to us. Where am I coming from?

From the Beachwood Reporter’s Steve Rhodes:

“Almost everyone agrees that having these two summits in our city is a great opportunity to solidify our rightful place as a world city,” Ald. Joe Moreno wrote on Huffington Post explaining his votes in favor of the new ordinances.

I’m not sure which part of that declaration is worse: “Almost everyone,” “great opportunity,” or “solidify our rightful place as a world city.”

It’s okay to say no to ordinances. Not every ordinance needs to pass, even with “concessions” after some “great open-mindedness” from Mayor Emanuel. Then the City Council tried to hide from the public:

“They wouldn’t let Occupiers into the council chambers. First they claimed it was a capacity. So I went up to the mezzanine and photographed empty seats and came back down to the 2nd floor. When I showed them the evidence they were lying, the cops reconvened then announced that the mayor simply refused us inside.”

This city is good enough without these two conferences. Ones that no one asked for.

My commentary on these kinds of issues is supremely bad, and I’m very mad at this city council for its endless string of rubber stamping. I didn’t start paying attention until the parking meter lease deal. 

Clean Power Ordinance, delayed again

Updated September 30, 2011: The ordinance never got on the Committee on Health and Environmental Protection’s agenda for September. So my fingers are crossed for the October meeting.

Clean power advocates march in Pilsen on Saturday, September 24, 2011. Photo by Ryan Williams. 

Instead of voting on the Clean Power Ordinance on September 8, 2011, the Committee on Committees, Ethics and Rules “re-referred” it to the Committee on Health and Environmental Protection. This is a companion post to Rollin’ beyond coal, on Grid Chicago.

What the Clean Power Ordinance is

It sets emissions standards for coal-powered plants in Chicago. It applies modern standards about air pollution, as they apply to coal and natural gas power plants, to any coal-powered plant in Chicago.

The Chicago Clean Power Coalition has a summary of the ordinance.

Why this is needed

Residents of Pilsen, Little Village, Bridgeport and other communities (pollution has no boundary) have suffered for decades from the release of carbon dioxide, mercury, lead, hydrochloric acid and other chemicals into the air. Read the Toxics Release Inventory for the Fisk Generating Station.

A large portion of the population is 18 and younger; this portion is growing. Pollution has a greater negative effect on young people.

The Fisk and Crawford power plants, owned by Midwest Generation, a subsidiary of Edison International, were grandfathered in to the Clean Air Act of 1970. That means the standards imposed by that legislation don’t apply.

The ordinance’s “Whereas” clause lists six studies that define the effects of certain levels of particulate matter (better known as soot) on human disease, mortality, and life expectancy. A 2002 Harvard study (PDF) that found the power plants combined caused 41 premature deaths per year.

What else

It appears that Alderman JoAnn Thompson, 16th Ward, is no longer a co-sponsor. The Chicago Clean Power Coalition lists her as a co-sponsor as of August 12, 2011, but on the ordinance document (ordinance number O2011-6489) published on the City Clerk’s website, her name is missing.

Midwest Generation, or one of its sister companies, Edison Mission Energy, is known to have lobbied the City Council, the Mayor’s Office, and the Department of Environment in 2010. “Midwest Generation officials said the ordinance is not needed because they already have started to comply with federal standards that will significantly cut pollution at their plants” (Chicago Tribune). The company also claims that a shutdown of the plant will harm electricity supply in Chicago. On that:

Chicago doesn’t actually need the electricity from the plants, though if the plants go offline before ongoing upgrades to local transmission infrastructure are completed it could cause instability on the grid including possible blackouts, according to a spokesman for the utility ComEd. (Midwest Energy News)

Alderman Solis (25th Ward) joined Alderman Joe Moore (49th Ward) during the election time this year as a lead sponsor, to help save his seat on the council in a fight with Cuahetemoc “Témoc” Morfin.

What’s next

Since the Committee on Committees, Ethics and Rules (CCER) “re-referred” it to the Committee on Health and Environmental Protection (CHEP), the members of CHEP, 18 of which are also on CCER, must discuss the ordinance. Oddly, CHEP did not place on its agenda for their Tuesday, September 27, 2011, meeting a consideration of the ordinance. After discussion, the committee can recommend that the full council vote on it. If the council passes it, Mayor Emanuel can sign or veto it.

In July, Mayor Emanuel talked about his support for the ordinance but didn’t go so far as to endorse it.

Del Valle on Walmart stores and good governing in Chicago

This is juicy. I went to a friend’s house tonight (along with 40 other people) to hear and talk to Miguel Del Valle, candidate for Chicago mayor (the election’s on February 22). After he talked about his issues, we asked him questions on different issues or to expand on what he said earlier.

Someone in the audience asked about Walmart in Pullman. I’m not sure of the exact question, but Miguel answered: “I support a living wage. If I was mayor, I would not have vetoed the ‘big box ordinance’.” (Mayor Daley initially supported the big box ordinance that would have set a minimum wage for workers in stores of a certain square footage but vetoed the bill after it was approved by the city council.)

Not wanting to lose an opportunity to talk about such a contentious issue (now quickly becoming one for New York City), I spoke up and mentioned to Miguel that Walmart plans 30 more stores in Chicago (a few people gasped at the thought of this) and asked, “How do you feel about that?” He replied:

How do I feel about that? It won’t be my job to feel something about new Walmarts in the city. That’s the city council’s job. I want to liberate them [he said this on Wednesday night]. I want there to be an open, deliberative process, with debate and transparency. I want there to be public hearings in and outside the council chambers. Let the proponents speak, and let the opponents speak. Whether or not there should be more Walmarts in Chicago is up to the aldermen and their constituents to decide. There are areas in Chicago where stores that sell fresh groceries don’t want to move in, but Walmart is – people are willing to take what they can get.* What is appropriate in one neighborhood might not be appropriate for another, but that is not for the mayor to decide. The citizens must choose.

(I can’t believe I paraphrased his response so well. I mean, I rode home in 2°F cold so my body is really tired.)

One audience member wasn’t sure what it meant to “liberate aldermen” and asked, “Can you describe what that looks like?” She was curious about Del Valle’s “proposal” to have a democratic process in the city council chambers. He explained that the citizens elect aldermen to represent them when making and passing bills. It’s the mayor’s job to control the flow of bill introductions and voting.

He gave the example of the parking meter deal: The ordinance was introduced one day and voted on the next day. This wouldn’t happen if Del Valle was mayor because he would require debate, transparency, hearings, and such. As mayor, he would immediately engage Morgan Stanley to try to renegotiate the terms of the lease. Unlike The Urbanophile, Miguel does not believe the city can buy back the meters – they’re far too valuable at this point.

He wants to make a structural change – the way governing should be but hasn’t been during the Daley administration. I support him in this effort.

*I would prefer that our TIF dollars be used for what they were designed for: improving the economic conditions in blighted areas. TIF money is supposed to be used to pay for capital projects that would not occur in that area if not for the TIF funding. Maybe Pete’s Fresh Market or Roundy’s needs a bit more incentive. The Walmart contribution to the tax rolls is not all it’s cracked up to be! Also consider how big companies like Walmart, and now Costco in the Illinois Medical District, consistently receive tax brakes. These are the very companies that can most afford paying taxes.

Draft letter to my Alderman about the TSA

To my readers: I am concerned about transportation security in the United States. I am concerned that it grossly oversteps boundaries erected by my rights as a citizen. I am concerned about the effectiveness of security theater. I want to travel without my naked body being viewed, or my clothed body being touched, by strangers at the airport.* I want my elected politicians to do something. The first is to consider our options.

Below is a draft letter to my most local elected official, the 11th Ward Alderman of Chicago. I’ll send this to him to his office at 3659 S Halsted Street after Thanksgiving week.

Do you have ideas for making it better? My opinion is at the end.

Dear Alderman Balcer,

I understand that airports in the United States can elect to remove the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and provide their passenger screening services.

You have probably heard that is widespread confusion, anger, and disgust at how some people passing through America’s airports are being treated. Many object to having strangers view them naked, and others are reporting feeling groped by strangers – all in the name of preventing terrorism. The federal Government Accountability Office reported that it could not confirm if the current “Advanced Imaging Technology” (AIT) machines (either backscatter x-ray or millimeter wave) would have detected the explosive material someone attempted to use around Christmas 2009.

I haven’t yet decided if I will include this photo of a sleeping TSA officer at Chicago’s Midway (MDW) airport in 2007. Photo by Erin Nekervis.

As the City of Chicago owns O’Hare and Midway Airports, the City Council has power and authority over their operations.

I urge you and your colleagues to investigate the effectiveness of the TSA’s AIT machines, their protection or lack of protection of Chicagoans’ privacy, the level of training each TSA worker receives, and the possibility of using different passenger screening techniques in the Chicago Airport System, without the aid of the TSA.

I have enclosed an article by the Toronto Star from December 30, 2009, that briefly explains how security works at airports in Israel, a country under daily threats of bombing, and real bombing, without the use of expensive and unexplained machinery.

Steven Vance
11th Ward Resident

*I really want some high-speed rail.

Addendum, 11/19/10: After reading how an airline pilot refused to have his body groped or viewed naked, and describing his experience with the TSA on a message board, I wanted to post the pilot’s comments (via Gizmodo):

Roberts’s reply: “If your perspective prevails [that Roberts's actions had no effect in changing TSA policy] – and I’m afraid it may – we may all live to find ourselves wishing we had fought in earlier days, when we still had a fighting chance.”

This reminds me of the “If you’ve got nothing to hide, then why are you against it?” position. At the rate the TSA is removing rights protecting Americans from unreasonable searches (Fourth Amendment), I eventually won’t have anything to hide because I won’t be allowed to have anything – no water bottles, no 7 inches long bike tools, no shaving cream. This government, and many other governments, conducts intensive surveillance and collects godawful amounts of data. The government is not always benign, will share the data, and does a poor job of securing the data. I am not doing anything illegal, but that does not mean I want to share all of my activities with the government or the police.

Read more TSA horror stories, in this roundup from the UK-based Daily Mail.

Chicago’s big box saga continues

The Chicago big box saga is a tale of who gets to build where, how big, and how much wage it pays. It can be extended to include debates on store design.

While big box stores were built here before the first Wal-Mart in Chicago, the saga begins with that megastore. The City Council passed a “living wage” ordinance (also called the big box wage ordinance) that required stores with over 90,000 square feet and $1 billion in revenue to pay their employees a minimum of $10 per hour, and an additional $3 per hour in fringe benefits. The Mayor vetoed the ordinance. Wal-Mart built its store in the Austin neighborhood and paid their normal wage (in 2010 it seems to be $8.75). It won’t be until 2011 (at the earliest) that the second Wal-Mart will open in Pullman.

An urban-friendly Best Buy in the same complex as a senior citizen assisted living center.

Meanwhile, Target opens new Chicago stores in McKinley Park and West Rogers Park (on Peterson Avenue), both in 2006. Best Buy opened stores on Elston Avenue, Belmont Avenue, Clark Street, Roosevelt Road, and Michigan Avenue. Kohl’s, a discount department store, opened a store alongside Best Buy on Elston (to the tune of 130,000 square feet, on par with Wal-Mart) in 2005. Home Depot and Menards have also opened stores since the big box ordinance veto in 2006 seemingly without a hitch.

This month, Target proposed to a group of residents and the 2nd Ward Alderman, Robert Fioretti, a new store at Jackson and Aberdeen in the West Loop. Many residents were disappointed by the store design. At least one resident didn’t understand the need for a store with the South Loop store on Roosevelt so close.

How the saga can end

The prevailing wages at big box stores in Chicago should be researched. The current research about Wal-Mart and big box stores’ tax revenue contributions should be validated by additional studies. There are several universities up to this task, and mine, the University of Illinois at Chicago, has released multiple studies – here’s one about localized job creation and elimination.

With solid background information, alderman and city agencies, as well as residents, can potentially make better informed and more effective decisions about the future of large-scale retailing in Chicago.

More of this please (Home Depot hardware store in dense neighborhood)…

…And less of these.

Lastly, the City Council and Zoning and Planning departments should set design standards for this style of shopping to ensure urban friendly and transit oriented developments. Home Depot and Target should be lauded for their stores on Halsted Street in Lincoln Park (more info), and on Roosevelt Road in South Loop, respectively*. However, each has since built their typical suburban monstrosities in other neighborhoods, that neither recognize that some customers would like to arrive by car (instead by transit or bike), nor consider the environment (minimum-size parking lots make a large contribution to the city’s current problems managing stormwater runoff). Future Wal-Marts should promote sustainable design.

First and second photos by Payton Chung. Third photo by PonderInc.

*While the Target in McKinley Park (Chicago) is LEED Certified, the South Loop store probably has an annual lower carbon footprint because of all the visitors who arrive by transit and bike. The South Loop store is near a major train station and several bus routes (at least five). The McKinley store is on a highway and two bus routes.

The truth about Wal-Mart’s contribution to the tax roll

I recently wrote about how Wal-Mart plans to expand its reach in Chicago in a big way (30 new stores big). Politicians around the country consistently like to be heard saying how one way the store(s) will benefit the city is the additional tax revenue the city will see from property and sales tax contributions. Here are selected quotes from Chicagoans:

On Tuesday, [Chicago Mayor] Daley noted that a Wal-Mart expansion would pave the way for sales tax windfall for the cash-starved city budget.

In suburban Cook County, about 20 percent to 30 percent of all sales tax revenue comes from Wal-Marts, Daley said.

Chicago Sun-Times, June 15, 2010

“Everyone realizes we need the tax revenue,” [Alderman Anthony] Beale [9th Ward] said.

Chicago Sun-Times, May 5, 2010

Ald. Richard Mell, 33rd, a pro-union alderman, lamented Wal-Mart’s domination of the nation’s retail market and its tendency to sell foreign-made products, but voted for Pullman Park because of the need for jobs and additional tax revenue.

Chicago Tribune, June 30, 2010

Comparatively, Wal-Mart brings in little property tax revenue on a per acre basis, according to a study from Sarasota County (Florida) and Public Interest Projects and posted by Citiwire. I’ve summarized their findings:

  • Single-family home: $8,200 per acre
  • Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club: $150.00-$200.00 per acre
  • Southgate Mall: $22,000 per acre
  • High-rise mixed-use project in downtown Sarasota: $800,000

That last one’s the kicker! From the Citiwire article, “‘It takes a lot of WalMarts to equal the contribution of that one mixed-use building,’ [Peter] Katz noted.” Read the full story for more examples and for more discussion on how this specific breakdown of costs and benefits is only one way to look at fiscal and retail impact.

If the same tax revenues were true for Chicago or Cook County (and I can’t say it is or isn’t), then the city planners and aldermen should be seeking developers to build high-rise mixed-use projects. Right.

But the issue Chicago and other cities have is that Wal-Mart is one of the most willing developers – they will build where no one else will. They have capital that no one else has. They have the resources to sway the population. It’s more politically difficult to resist such a willing partner like Wal-Mart than it is to seek relationships with developers who have the resources to create more beneficial mixed-use projects in the neighborhoods Wal-Mart seems to prefer.

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