I guess some people in the world call large freshwater lakes “sweet water seas”. that would include Lake Michigan, a great lake.
The mouth of Belmont Harbor is a great place to photograph large planes arriving from Europe and Anchorage, charter fishing boats leaving the harbor, and pre- and post-war apartment buildings that overlook Chicago’s precious source of drinking water and recreation.
All photos taken on iPhone 14 Pro. The 3x zoom lens is handy, but still not as good as a handheld camera with interchangeable zoom lens. I’ll bring that next time I’m going to be around Belmont Harbor at the time the jumbo jets arrive.
Alternative headline: The zoning map and the zoning code work hard to limit new housing and density.
Several times a week I browse the descriptions of recently issued building permits in Chicago to find the “interesting” projects so I can post those on the Chicago Cityscape social media accounts and keep people apprised of neat things happening.
I also track when new ADU permits are issued, because the city does not.
Yesterday a permit with the description of “basement to be converted to an additional legal dwelling unit” was issued in Roscoe Village, so I went to the city’s list of ADU pre-approval applications to determine if the permit was for an ADU or the applicant was taking advantage of the property’s #UnusedZoningCapacity.
It was not an ADU, and since it was zoned RS-3 – which bans multi-unit housing – it was also not the owner taking advantage of #UnusedZoningCapacity.
What was permitted?
I went to the city’s online zoning map to look for other clues, and I found that the property was involved in two Zoning Board of Appeals actions. This is where the story gets interesting. I will do my best to summary the proceedings but I must disclaim that I am not a lawyer.
The Zoning Board of Appeals is an appointed, quasi-judicial body that has three primary functions:
Grant variations where the zoning code authorizes them to (deviations from the code because of atypical circumstances or circumstances that have been previously deemed to require additional review).
Grant special uses where the zoning code authorizes them to (business types that have been previously deemed to require additional or special review).
Appeal decisions made the Zoning Administrator, the person who works for the City of Chicago in the Chicago Department of Planning & Development (and by extension, the plan review staff).
There is a provision in the Chicago zoning code that says that houses that, upon special request, the Zoning Administrator (ZA) can grant an Administrative Adjustment (AA) to allow an additional dwelling unit at houses that are 50 years old or older (subject to other provisions in 17-13-1003-BB).
The owner – also known as the applicant in this blog post – of the two-flat decided to request this AA. The ZA said that the applicant was not eligible for the AA. “The Appellant [applicant] then attempted to seek a variation before the Zoning Board of Appeals” because the ZBA can “grant a variation for any matter expressly authorized as an administrative adjustment”.
Before an applicant can approach ZBA, though, they must apply for a building permit and receive an official “denial of zoning certification” (more on this at the end). This “denial” means, in the unofficial layperson’s zoning translation dictionary, “the permit reviewers see what you’re trying to do and while it’s not permitted as of right under the circumstances you can take this certificate and apply for relief from the ZBA”.
The ZA, who oversees the permit reviewers’ review of a building permit application’s adherence to zoning standards, “refused to issue” the denial. They did this pursuant to 17-16-0503-A, which says the ZA “may deny or withhold all permits, certificates or other forms of authorization on any land or structure or improvements thereon upon which there is uncorrected violation of a provision of this Zoning Ordinance…” The building had an uncorrected building violation citation from 2007.
The property owner disagreed with the application of that section of the zoning code. They filed an appeal and asked the ZBA to reverse the ZA’s decision to refuse issuing the denial. (In the same filing the applicant also asked the ZBA to legalize the basement garden unit, which they declined to do.
I’m going to skip a bunch of the proceedings, which are in the attached meeting minutes from two meetings, but conclude that the ZBA “finds that the ZBA did err in refusing to issue the Appellant an official denial of zoning certification” and ordered the ZA to issue the denial.
The story ended well
Having won the appeal, the applicant has the official denial of zoning certification and can proceed to file a new case with the ZBA and request a variation asking, again, for them to grant them the administrative adjustment that the ZA had previously said the applicant was not eligible for.
The applicant’s building permit for the additional unit was issued on June 7, 2023. The processing time on the building permit was 961 days, which should represent the date when the applicant first submitted the building permit application with the intention of getting the official denial of zoning certification from the ZA.
The result was that the city lost an additional home in a high-amenity, high-resource neighborhood for three years and a property owner had to pay thousands in legal fees.
124-22-A. The appeal of the ZA’s denial to issue the official denial of zoning certification.
12-23-Z. The variation granting the property owner the right to establish an additional dwelling unit in the two-flat.
This is the first post in what might become a video series about the Chicago zoning code. I picked business live/work unit because they’re a rarely seen “use” (an establishment) in Chicago, likely in part due to how few buildings are zoned to allow them and that the rules setting their minimum size might make eligible spaces doubly harder to find.
There is no order! An authentic “Zoning 101” would probably start by describing zoning, but I’m assuming you know that Chicago has a zoning code that defines what can and cannot be built or practiced on every property in the city. Business live/work units are one of those many things the code defines and regulates.
A business live/work unit is distinguished from an artist live/work unit in the Chicago zoning code in that it allows more business types – i.e. more than the creation or practice of art is allowed – but it requires that they happen on the ground floor. Artist live/work units are allowed in more zoning districts as of right (no additional permission necessary) above the ground floor.
What do you want to learn about next? Leave a comment or @ me on Twitter (stevevance).
Links to the relevant parts of the Chicago zoning code:
Currently, the Lightfoot administration has proposed spending about $188 million to support the construction of 318 affordable dwelling units in three office and hotel buildings that would accomplish a couple of goals. The housing would reduce the segregation of downtown living, and it would increase the population of downtown which could use more people to support all of the businesses and infrastructure that already exist.
the city projects it will generate $120 million in in 2022 (source)
the city spent $76 million in 2021 ($63 million was surplused and the rest was spent on plans, studies, and “Costs of construction of public works or improvements”)
That’s a lot of money that the mayor’s office gets to choose how to spend!
It’s unlikely that the Lightfoot administration can rally the necessary approvals to dedicate the money before Brandon Johnson and a new city council is sworn in on Wednesday, May 15.
If the Johnson administration wanted to review the alternatives to that proposal, what would those be?
Spend $188 million to support the construction of 318 affordable units
Surplus the money; if the city did this, it would receive $44.81 million into the general budget.
Spend the same or less money on…something else. This could include beautifying the street or attracting residential development through another strategy that doesn’t spend the money on buildings construction (according to suggestions in a Crain’s article).
Do nothing. The money would stay in the account, grow, and generate interest.
What are other ways to spend the money?
With the cash flow shown in the “how much money” list above, it seems that the city could accomplish alternatives 1 and 2.
Over the years I waffled once or twice about adding a third unit, in the basement. I hired a structural engineer to draw up plans for the replacement center beam in the basement’s ceiling. To “future proof” the plans, I also asked him to draw a plan and create specifications for a floor excavation in order to achieve a code-compliant ceiling height in the potential basement unit.
The waffling was based on the cost of the necessary digging down. Excavation will add about $25,000 to the cost of the project. (That’s based on one bid, the only bid that called it out specifically. I asked all three bidders to separate the costs of the basement unit so that I would know exactly how much the basement unit – excavation, walls, finishes, etc. – would cost as an “add on”.)
I think my architect also helped convince me to design and get bids for a third unit because of the flexibility it could provide for me and my tenants (which may include one or more family members), as well as the possibility of additional rental income.
I’ve settled on adding the third unit, and I’m excited to do it, in part because of my well-known enthusiasm for accessory dwelling units. (A note about Chicago’s ADU ordinance: this property is outside the ADU pilot area but it has unused zoning capacity per both the FAR and minimum lot area per unit standards so the additional unit is allowed without the ADU ordinance.)
The Chicago Building Code requires that the ceiling height be a minimum of 7′-6″ in most of any dwelling unit (that’s measured from the finished floor to the finished ceiling). A limited amount of area is allowed to be lower to get around existing or newly installed pipes and ducts in the ceiling.
To achieve that, crews will demolish and remove the existing floor slab (which I’ll be a little sad about because the previous owner did a nice job pouring it) and excavating earth 10″ down. They’ll also underpin the foundation walls in an alternating pattern of rectangles around the perimeter. I hope I can explain underpinning well (otherwise watch Darren Voros’s video): This means they’ll dig under half of the foundation dispersed around the perimeter (the A sections), leaving unexcavated space between each to hold up the other half of the foundation (the B sections); then they’ll switch and repeat the process for the B sections.
After every rain storm I go and check the house. The basement has been dry every time. I’m surprised, and thankful, that it seems that water doesn’t seep into the basement.
One time I noticed that there was water pooling on the basement floor – when a rain storm had not occurred. It turned out that when I closed the water service line I didn’t close it well enough and water was very slowly leaking out. Tightening the valve handle was a simple resolution.
During the excavation there will be a perimeter drain tile system installed under the floor slab to steer water toward an ejector pit. An ejector pit is different than a sump pump in that it has a mechanism to grind the house’s sewage before pumping it to the city’s sewer main. I believe an ejector pit is a requirement when the lowest dwelling unit’s plumbing (i.e. the toilet) will be below the city sewer main.
Bob Vila’s website describes interior drains like this:
Similar to exterior drain tile, an interior French drain features a perforated pipe that carries water to a collection pit where it can be pumped to the surface. This type of drain is located along the interior perimeter of the basement and lies below floor level.
All You Need to Know About Basement Drains, Glenda Taylor and Bob Vila
The new dwelling unit is drawn as a 1-bedroom apartment with a small bedroom that has two short windows and a closet. It has a large, combined living room, dining room, and kitchen.
The entryway is partially separated from the big room using a hall closet, creating a sort of mud hall. The bathroom is of a typical size for small apartments in Chicago and there’s a considerably sized utility room for laundry and storage. Overall, the apartment has an area of about 720 s.f.
I believe in-unit storage to be an important amenity. My current apartment is a studio and I selected it in part because it had good layout with a lot of scattered storage (there’s a walk-in closet, a large nook between the living area and the bathroom, a small closet, and a linen closet in the bathroom).
When I was looking for a new place to live in 2022 I didn’t want to have to move any of my stuff into a storage locker in the building or a storage unit in another building.
Other space in the basement
The rest of the basement, about 100 s.f., will have two hybrid heat pump water heaters, the ejector pit, electrical panels, and a little bit of room for storage. There’s also a rear entryway and the basement apartment will have a rear exit through here.