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.
Several things happened in November that has inspired me to finally document the story about a building whose history I had previously researched but never shared. It’s the story of a rear-courtyard-style building two blocks from the Garfield Park Conservatory that had 18 dwelling units, was demolished in the 1990s due to unpaid water bills, and rezoned – along with many other buildings nearby and across the city – to allow the next owner to build only seven dwelling units.
Those three things, for the curious: A question was posed to the speaker at a recent real estate group luncheon about the prevalence of downzoning in Chicago and the impact that might have on limiting some redevelopment of vacant lots; the city’s launch of ChiBlockBuilder, a program that replaces and expands upon the former $1 Large Lots program; and a meetup I attended with other urban planners to discuss, among other topics, zoning, transit, and cannabis dispensaries.
I make a few contentions in this blog post about zoning in Chicago. Among them:
Downzoning is a municipal practice that reduces how densely a property can be developed; in this context, the number of dwelling units allowed.
The zoning text and maps have progressively downzoned the city between the first zoning code and today’s zoning code; this blog post reviews the zoning text changes using a case study of a single building.
The zoning text and map at the time allowed an 18-unit building to be built on a particular property in East Garfield Park but the current zoning text and map allows only a seven-unit building to be built.
Introducing the vacant lot at 3454 W Fulton Blvd
There is a vacant lot owned by the City of Chicago at the northeast corner of Fulton Boulevard and St. Louis Avenue in East Garfield Park, in view of the renowned Garfield Park Conservatory. The lot has an area of 7,500 square feet.
For what it’s worth, the southeast corner lot had 15 units, the southwest corner lot had 18 units. Then there’s the northwest corner lot that had a rear-courtyard-style building with interior corridors with 45 units (that’s 250 percent more units on a lot that’s 150 percent larger). (See Sanborn map volume 11, sheet 83, to visualize the corners on the west side of St. Louis Ave.)
The timeline of construction to demolition to city ownership to resale
The flats were built between 1922 and 1949, according to Sanborn maps (link to 1922 map, volume 11, sheet 83, hosted by the Library of Congress, which shows a vacant lot, while the 1949 version above shows the building).
If the building was dilapidated and had been cited, I did not find evidence in the documents available at online Cook County and City of Chicago sources. There is evidence, however, that the property was sold in 1988 a five-year delinquent tax sale.
The lot had six adjoining three-flats for a total of 18 units until its demolition, by the City of Chicago, on February 12, 1992 (read the lien the city filed against Exchange National Bank, in the amount of $14,754, to cover the cost of demolition).
Seven years later, on March 1999, the City of Chicago acquired the lot after succeeding in its lawsuit against Exchange National Bank in the Cook County Circuit Court’s Chancery Division (case number 95 CH 3958).
I’m going to repeat this part: Available evidence shows that the City of Chicago demolished the building due to unpaid water bills. I believe that political and planning circumstances – and policies – have changed such that if the situation were repeated in 2022 the building would not be demolished. For example, there is a coalition program called the Troubled Buildings Initiative that the city helped found in the mid-2000s to place buildings in this and similar situations into “receivership”, to ensure that the building does not get demolished and can actually be stabilized and improved (renovated). This is a better way of handling the problem!
Fast forward twenty-three years from the acquisition in 1999 to now. The lot is for sale to eligible neighbors – for the second time this decade – for use as a landscaped space (side yard, garden, plaza) or redeveloped (anything allowed by zoning, but you may need assistance learning to decode the zoning code).
The lot was first for sale in the Large Lots program during one or more of the tranches promoted between 2015 and 2018. The lot is now for sale since the ChiBlockBuilder program launched on November 17, 2022.
The rules are different between the former Large Lots program and ChiBlockBuilder. In the past, anyone who owned property on the same block or across the alley could apply to acquire the lot. All lots were sold for $1.
Now, through ChiBlockBuilder, interested buyers who want a low-cost acquisition must own and live in a property adjacent to the lot. This lot has only one eligible neighbor; I don’t know if the owner lives there. If they do, they can acquire the property for 10 percent of its market value.
That’s another difference between Large Lots and ChiBlockBuilder: All properties for sale (which is a subset of all properties that will eventually be for sale) have already had their market value appraised.
The market value for 3454 W Fulton Blvd is $29,953 or $2,995 for eligible applicants. There’s one other group of potential buyers that can obtain lots for 10 percent of market value and that’s non-profit organizations who have a proposal for a landscaped-based project.
What does zoning allow?
Successful neighboring owner-occupant buyers are able to do anything with the vacant lot that zoning allows. Although, without an expertise in reading the Chicago zoning code or a tool like Chicago Cityscape, it will be hard to know what that is.
My real estate information company, Chicago Cityscape, automatically generates a “Zoning Assessment” for every parcel in Chicago.
At 3454 W Fulton Blvd, the Zoning Assessment estimates that, currently, seven dwelling units are permissible, 11 fewer than what were extant there back in 1992.
Downzoning takes effect: Zoning codes of 1923, 1944, 1957, and 2004
Downzoning is a process – through either a change in the map (the zoning district assigned to a property) or a change in the text – that reduces the number of dwelling units permissible on a given lot.
In the 1923 zoning code, Chicago’s first, the allowable density of building on this lot was controlled by the “2nd Volume District” which established very simple rules: a ground coverage limit of 75 percent, and a height limit of 66 feet. The building height could be higher with an upper floor setback.
Multiplying the lot size of 7,500 s.f. by 0.75 equals a maximum building footprint of 5,625 s.f. Multiply that by six floors and there’s a maximum floor area of approximately 33,750 s.f. This created an FAR of 4.5.
In the 1944 zoning code, the allowable density of building on this lot was still controlled by the “2nd Volume District” but the maximum density had been reduced: a ground coverage limit of 45 percent, and a height limit of 45 feet (the current zoning code applies a height limit of 38 feet on the lot in question, while ground coverage is dictated by FAR and setbacks standards that the 1944 zoning code didn’t have).
Multiplying the lot size of 7,500 s.f. by 0.45 equals a maximum building footprint of 3,375 s.f. Multiply that by four floors and there’s a maximum floor area of approximately 13,500 s.f. This created an FAR of 1.8.
Yet neither the 1923 nor the 1944 zoning codes had a limit on the number of dwelling units. The number of dwelling units was thus limited by whatever building code standards there were and the unit sizes the builder wanted to market.
The 1957 zoning code introduced a more stratified Use + Density schedule of districts more similar to the current zoning code than the two prior codes. The map was drawn to place 3454 W Fulton Blvd into an “R4” district.
In 1957, the R4 zoning district applied a new density rule that there can only be one dwelling unit per 900 s.f. of lot area. This differs from the prior two codes which did not have a standard establishing a maximum number of units.
Since the lot has an area of 7,500 s.f., that equals eight dwelling units allowed.
The 1957 zoning code also introduced a floor area ratio (FAR) of 1.2 to control building size, and front, side, and rear yard setbacks that controlled lot coverage. Remember that this lot had an effective allowable FAR of 4.5 in 1923 and 1.8 in 1944.
I think it needs to be pointed out that the most dense residential-only zoning district in the 1957 zoning code – R8 – allowed more than twice the number of units on a given lot than the most dense residential-only zoning district in the current zoning code – RM-6.5. It was a matter of requiring 135 s.f. of lot area per dwelling unit prior to 2004 and 300 s.f. of lot area per dwelling unit since 2004, respectively.
In practical terms, if the lot was zoned R8 in 1957-2003 then 55 units would be allowed; if it was zoned RM-6.5 in 2004-2022 then 25 units would be allowed.
In the current zoning code, adopted in 2004, the lot’s “R4” zoning district designation was converted to “RT-4”. The code was updated to reduce the density rule from requiring 900 s.f. of lot area per dwelling unit to requiring 1,000 s.f. of lot area per dwelling unit. Since the lot has an area of 7,500 s.f., that means seven dwelling units are allowed here (also, the zoning code says the number must be rounded down in instances where there is a maximum standard). That’s a difference of one unit, so hardly an indictment of the downzoning of this lot that occurred between 1957 and 2004.
The FAR stayed the same between the 1957 and 2004 zoning codes, at 1.2 (far below 4.5 in 1923 and less than 1.8 in 1944).
Allowed zoning summary
I contend that there was a severe decline in the number of dwelling units allowed between Chicago’s first and fourth (current) zoning codes, manifested through a reduction in reduced height limits and lot coverage between 1923 and 1944 and the introduction of the maximum number of units standard (called “minimum lot area per unit”) in 1957. The zoning code in 2004, as it pertains to this lot, looks very much like the zoning code in 1957.
Another big change between the 1957 and 2004 zoning codes was the amount of parking required: in the equivalent zoning districts, the 1957 zoning code required 0.75 spaces per dwelling unit while the 2004 zoning code requires 1 space per dwelling unit, which is still the case as proximity to transit has no bearing on RT-4 zoning districts.
The 1923 had a cap on the number of garage parking spaces of one space per dwelling unit. This cap went away at some point, and has been reinstated in a limited basis in the “Connected Communities” ordinance adopted in 2022.
The 1923 zoning code allows more “auxiliary” uses in “apartment districts”, such as the one governing the vacant lot in question, compared to the current RT-4 zoning district, including: a boarding or lodging house, and an apartment hotel with a restaurant or dining room that is entered from within the lobby. (I don’t think apartment hotels exist anymore in Chicago.)
In 2022, the Chicago City Council adopted a zoning code amendment called “Connected Communities” which would allow the next owner of this vacant lot to build housing without any car parking – like it was in the 1920s – if they were to also obtain an upzone (that is, a zoning map amendment to a higher-density zoning district) to RM-5 or higher. This is because the lot is near enough to an eligible transit service.
P.S. The other type of downzoning (or upzoning) is to change the map. This means to reassign certain parcels to a different zoning district. Chicago city council members do this constantly, often for unknown or unexplained reasons. When it is explained, it’s often to ensure that a property owner must proposed a project to the alderperson and then obtain their permission to (usually) upzone.
When the zoning is changed one parcel at a time, or several parcels for a single property owner, this process of downzoning – or upzoning – gets an additional name: spot zoning. This is generally bad urban planning and development policy and has been part of political corruption. Chicago used to have a department policy that rezonings (changes to the zoning map) had to cover at least 10,000 s.f. of contiguous parcel area at a time (just a little bit larger than three standard size lots).
Several examples of alderperson-initiated downzoning in the 2010s include (from memory):
Former alderperson, and chairperson of the City Council’s zoning committee, Danny Solis, downzoned a large residential property in Pilsen to “M” (industrial); the property owner, PMG, sued Solis and the City of Chicago. The settlement was that the city would buy the land from PMG at market rate. This is now the 18th & Peoria development site, and the city is conducting public meetings to determine how to develop it.
Alderperson Roberto Maldonado submitted dozens of downzoning ordinances to City Council in ~2020, to change vacant lots in Humboldt Park and Logan Square from RT-4 (which would allow a three-flat) to RS-3 (which would allow a single-detached house, and in rare locations, a two-flat). The planning department staff had to limit his submissions to a few per month because they could not handle all of his ordinances amongst their other work processing real zoning change applications.
Alderperson Carlos Ramirez-Rosa downzoned a commercial district along Milwaukee Avenue north of Diversey Avenue to allow a lower density and lower height. Any developer that proposed more than allowed has to go through the 35th Ward Community Zoning Process (I have not personally experienced this process but I appreciate that it’s well-documented and seems to be applied consistently). The scope of the downzoning was reduced after some pushback.
Cottage courts (or clusters) are a common multi-family design typology in cities outside of Illinois. You’ll find them in California (where they’re more often called bungalow courts) and Tennessee, for example. They are characterized by having multiple detached one or two-story houses on a single and compact development site. The houses commonly face a shared green space and have shared parking behind them.
A primary benefit of cottage courts – and smaller footprint housing, generally – is that it creates more for-sale detached houses (which are in very high demand in Chicago) while sharing land . In other words, cottage courts create more detached houses using less land.
It is not possible to build a cottage court in Chicago because of how the zoning code is written. The purpose of this article is to discuss specific text amendments that would have to be collectively adopted in order to allow this housing type.
Zoning code barriers
The Chicago zoning code allows only one principal building per lot. A detached house constitutes a principal building and only one of them is allowed. The code would have to be changed to allow more than one principal buildings per lot. If the city council wants to limit this allowance to cottage courts then other code would have to be modified to define a cottage court (similarly to how it has a definition of a townhouse). (Section 17-1-1300 – this anti-housing provision is in the first chapter of the Chicago zoning code!)
Cottage courts should be fee simple , to make them easier to mortgage and sell, which means subdividing a lot into one lot per house. The Chicago zoning code does not allow subdividing a lot below the minimum lot area for the particular zoning district governing a lot. For example, currently in RS-3, if more than one principal building per lot was allowed, each cottage court house would have to occupy 2,500 s.f., which is an untenable size for cottage court development.
Minimum lot area per unit standards also severely restrict development of cottage courts. To build four houses in an RS-3 zoning district one would need a 10,000 s.f. lot!
Rear setbacks would need to be reducible, preferably without the need for a variation from the Zoning Board of Appeals. Because the houses are oriented to face a common green space at the interior of the lot (not at the front or rear of the lot), the rear of the house may be close to the side property line, violating the rear setback standard of ~30 feet.
Side setbacks would need to be combinable or eliminated as a requirement for cottage court development, so that the houses could be closer together or the designer could have more flexibility in their orientation.
Parking requirements would need to be more flexible, both in quantity and in design. Parking is currently allowed only in the rear setback, but these houses may not have a rear setback because of their inward orientation. To maximize shared green space parking requirements should be reducible for this housing type. The Chicago TOD ordinance may be relevant here, as it now applies in RM-5, and higher, residential zoning districts, but the cottage court needs to be allowable in the RS-3 and RT-4 zoning districts (as these are for more common).
Attorneys, designers, and developers: Are there any other Chicago zoning code standards missing?
Examples of cottage courts
I know of two cottage court examples in Chicago (thanks, Matt and Matt):
7436 S Phillips Ave (et. al.). These were built prior to 1952, according to historic aerial images, and are individually parceled (see barrier #2 above).
7433 S Euclid Pkwy (et. al.). The houses were built between 1938 and 1952, according to historic aerial images, and are individually parceled. Two of the parcels are vacant.
1802 S Kildare Ave (et. al.). The houses were built after 1950.
All of the images below are from the Missing Middle Housing website, created by Opticos Design, an architecture firm that has popularized the term “missing middle”.
A tiny house village may also be considered a cottage court. The influential architecture firm, Landon Bone Baker, once designed a proposed tiny house village (knowing full well it was not legal) for Thresholds and Easter Seals in Chicago.
 It’s also assumed that sharing land means sharing land costs, and land costs are a significant part of purchasing a house. In the areas where demand for detached houses is the highest, land costs are also the highest. Cottage courts create more detached houses with less land.
 fee simple has a legal meaning, but here I mean “the house owner also owns the land beneath the house”, and the pair are collateral for the lender that, on paper, looks like any other detached house the lender has mortgaged.
The Bloomingdale Trail planning process was the highest-quality I’ve experienced or witnessed. It’s an exception, and even then, it wasn’t integrated with any neighborhood or citywide plan to connect the trail to other networks of infrastructure. In essence, how people left or arrived to the path and parks wasn’t addressed. I expressed my pleasure at the process in 2011.
A friend said to me recently, “Chicago’s whole being is based on not really having planning.” It’s the answer to a question us Chicago planners get from people around the country, typically regarding how the city controls the built environment. Zoning is really the only “tool” it gives itself in the absence of any citywide or neighborhood-level comprehensive plan.
Doesn’t a new zoning code serve as a kind of plan?
It’s not a plan, and it’s a bad kind of planning because it doesn’t set goals or policies that could address the questions below (population loss, vacancies, parks and recreation). The city last revised its zoning code in 2004.
Using zoning as planning is made worse because, as mentioned in an example below, aldermen constantly “spot zone” by changing the zoning for one land parcel to something wildly different from the parcels that surround it. This doesn’t necessarily create incompatible land uses for the desired proposal (a brewery with a public taproom area in a traditional retail area would likely need a zoning change) but it creates unreliability as to the future of that street or neighborhood, because it subject to the whims of the alderman.
It needlessly complicates planning for developers’ business plans, and that of community development corporations who are trying to find land.
What’s the city’s plan for the lakefront museum, park, and trail system?
Accept the first proposal despite longstanding traditions and laws that are supposed to prevent new buildings between Lake Shore Drive and Lake Michigan. Even go a step further and change a law, at the state level, upon which a lawsuit opposing the Lucas Museum is based to remove the grounds for said lawsuit. Consider that the existing use is for tailgating on a surface parking lot and that the new use would be better (even though there’s a net positive number of parking spaces, and some of those parking spaces would be in the same space, but on grass outside the museum building). Don’t attempt to come up with alternative uses. Delay the release of a Museum Campus Transportation Plan.
What’s the city’s plan for vacant lots in high-demand neighborhoods?
Downzone it ahead of time so that the developer who wants to propose a non-conforming use has to come to the alderman to ask for a zoning change. What’s more likely to happen, and has happened many times over, is that a single-family home will be built. Next to a 24-hour train line.
What about these “corridor” or neighborhood-specific plans I’ve seen?
One of the strongest plans has been the Milwaukee Avenue Corridor Plan from 2008. The problem with these is that it was created by a previous alderman using different ward boundaries, so the current alderman (or more than one!) have no obligation to follow it. But they do have an incentive: many people who participated in creating that plan still live there, and care more about the street than they do what ward boundaries cut across it.
What’s the city’s plan to deal with 50 public schools it closed?
Deal with them one by one, after their closures, as time and resources allow.
What’s the city’s plan to rebuild its population?
A massive portion of the loss of 200,000 people from 2000 to 2010 was the loss of public housing units. The Chicago Housing Authority, which is separate from the City Council’s governance, has $400 million in its bank account and has replaced only a few thousand public housing units. You could say it’s about a decade behind on its plan to restore public and affordable housing units. Two other regulations (revised ARO and TOD ordinances) are attempting to build more affordable housing but will not make as much of a dent as the CHA doing its job.
The city is seeing more and more high-end residential construction concentrated in the Loop, South Loop, and Near North Side, areas that were already seeing growth during the 2008+ recession.