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Urbanism and the Peculiarity of Aldermanic Privilege

Chicago City Council Chambers

Urban planners and developers everywhere often need to contend with onerous local zoning codes and wind their way through arduous public approval processes. It's simply part of the art of placemaking. Yet nowhere is this process as politically peculiar as in the city of Chicago.

The city is divided into 50 political wards, each of which elects an Alderman to represent the ward in City Council. While the Council votes on zoning ordinances as a body, aldermen also enjoy an extraordinary de facto power over developments in their ward, known in Chicago as the "aldermanic privilege" or "aldermanic prerogative."

It may seem undemocratic to allow one person to have absolute power over proposed developments, but the unwritten tradition is intended to make the government work more efficiently by not tying up the business of the whole council for small developments at the ward scale.  As Alderman Moore of the 49th ward explains in an interview with Chicago Public Media:

"You wouldn't find that in any city code or state statute," Ald. Moore said. "It has just been the custom and practice of the City Council for generations."

Despite the minutiae of zoning, Moore and other aldermen defend their privilege by saying that they have an intimate knowledge of what goes on in their wards, and the extraordinary zoning power helps them shape the architectural and economic landscapes.

A painting of Alderman Colon and his ward, Logan Square

However, such power has its drawbacks, inviting corruption for project approval and undermining intended ordinances. For example, aldermanic privilege is a convenient outlet for NIMBYism, denying locally undesirable but necessary projects such as homeless shelters. In the case of a rebuilt McDonald's restaurant in Logan Square, Alderman Rey Colón may have helped skirt some requirements of the Pedestrian Streets ordinance.

In a city with Chicago's legacy of machine politics, the unique aldermanic privilege is unlikely to disappear entirely. While it does attempt to bring urban design decisions closer to the end user, it also has significant potential for abuse.

What specific zoning peculiarities exist in your city?

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