Zoning Code Unfriendly To Business And Residents Alike


About eight years ago then mayor Howard Frimark and the city Council formed an “Ad Hoc Zoning Ordinance Rewrite Committee” tasked with re-writing the City’s Zoning Code. The City hired an outside consultant and conscripted seventeen Park Ridge residents – six of whom were attorneys – to do the job.

But almost immediately after the newly-rewritten ordinance was adopted, developers began identifying all sorts of gaps and inconsistencies that they tried to exploit – with varying degrees of success. And an old rumor got new life:

“Park Ridge is unfriendly to business.”

Anything that is unpredictable is, almost by definition, “unfriendly” to business. Unpredictability increases the risks inherent in already-risky business ventures – medical marijuana and casino gambling likely being the most notable exceptions. And that unpredictability can be perceived as “unfriendliness,” especially to prospective businesses and developers.

In the years that have passed since the “new” Zoning Code was enacted, it seems as if most developers come in looking for variances and MAP amendments; and expecting to get them. Often they have at least a colorable argument, given the gaps, inconsistencies and general ricketiness of many of the Code’s provisions.

So it should come as no surprise that a developer is threatening to sue the City for the Planning & Zoning Commission’s recent denial of his request to build a four-story primarily-residential building at 400 Talcott Road that formerly housed an auto repair business.

This proposed 4-story building would be located in a “business” rather than a “residential” district, but it will have approximately 1,429 square feet of commercial space and 22 two and three-bedroom condos, each of which reportedly will contain more square footage than the entire amount of commercial space. That apparently qualifies as “business”/commercial under our whacked-out Zoning Code.

And the language of our Zoning Code, as previously interpreted by City staff and approved by the P&Z Commission for the project at 20-30 South Fairview – by the same developer, John O’Flaherty – would appear to permit the kind of structure he wants to build on Talcott.

But there’s a difference between that Fairview project and the Talcott project.

The Fairview project appears to have been a favorite of City staff, including Senior City Planner Jon Branham. Consequently, City staff may have interpreted vague or ambiguous Zoning Code terms in ways that favored the developer and advanced that project earlier this year – without any regard for what kind of precedent such interpretations might set for future projects.

Precedent, as in predictability.

Back at the public hearing on May 27, P&Z chairman Joe Baldi expressed concern about the lack of Zoning Code standards for the Talcott style of residential development in a B-1 Retail and Office district. Had this project been located in an area zoned “R” (for “residential”), even the highest residential rating, R-4, would have limited the maximum number of residential units to around 10-15 units.

Which don’t provide enough profit for Mr. O’Flaherty, who paid $400,000 for the property with the understanding that he could build what he is proposing on that site.

And if O’Flaherty gets his way, storm water detention may be a combination of insufficient and stupid, because he gets to pay a fee-in-lieu of providing sufficient detention. A fee which we understand to be wholly inadequate to address already-problematic flooding. Doesn’t that sound just ducky!

While we don’t take kindly to any developer threatening to sue the City in order to get what it wants, O’Flaherty and his attorney rightly pointed out that developers buy property only after analyzing the zoning parameters, with the purchase price based on what they should be able to build there. And that determination is based on what increasingly appears to be a vague, ambiguous and unacceptably inadequate Zoning Code.

Interpreted by City staff and P&Z in ad hoc ways that make it unpredictable.  And unfriendly.

To business and to residents alike.

To read or post comments, click on title.

16 comments so far

Not sure if it is helpful or relevant to the point of this blog entry (i.e. “unfriendly” zoning code), but here are some links to the proposed development as posted on the City’s website:

If I’m not mistaken that auto place has been vacant for how long now?

That old Budget-Rent-a-Car on Higgins across from the K-Expressway was vacant for a long time until that restaurant was built.

And while were at it, what’s going on with the old car dealership on Greenwood & Busse?

Something’s fishy here and certainly
I don’t think we should try to substitute commercial spaces for residential use.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Multi-family residential is the lowest of low-hanging fruit. Property sits on the market for all sorts of reasons, including unrealistic listing prices.

We don’t think residential spaces should be substituted for commercial spaces.

It appears that the zoning rewrite group did a less than stellar job. Part of the problem may have been that there were 17 of them, seems like waaaay too many to come up with a tightly constructed ordinance. And then it probably had to go to P&Z and then to the council. What a recipe for disaster.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Whether it was a “recipe” or not, the result doesn’t seem to be working.

You are dead on about a predictable zoning process being key to a business-friendly environment. I own two businesses, one in another Cook County suburb and the other in Lake County, and the buildings they are located in. And if/when I sell the Cook County business I will never buy another commercial building in Cook County because you never know what you’re going to face.

In Lake County, on the other hand, there was a zoning code and a building code. The understanding was clear: comply with it as written and you will be good to go. No variance, no wink, no nod, no envelope. Refreshing.

This is yet another example of something done wrong that keeps causing additional problems that our governmental bodies (city staff, P&Z, the city council) have to spend time and effort addressing. And as we see here, when those problems are addressed poorly (the other property being developed by the same developer), bad precedent ties the city’s hands later on.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Exactly. And as we’ve seen with a financial disaster like the Uptown TIF, often the disease-ridden chickens don’t come home to roost, or don’t come out of hiding, until AFTER the perpetrators (with the TIF, Mayors Wietecha, Marous and Frimark, 20-something former aldermen, then-city mgr. Tim Schuenke) have left office and/or moved out of Park Ridge – leaving their successors to clean up the Augean Stables left behind.

Shouldn’t it read ‘And unfriendly’, not ‘an unfriendly’???

EDITOR’S NOTE: Yes, thanks for pointing that out.

the Uptown redevelopment project is not the Augean Stables. It’s Arlington Park before a recession hobbled its potential, aided and abetted by you and Baldachino — the latter of whom, BTW (unlike a vast majority of the elected officials you treat as offal) left town the minute his legal manuevering and obfuscating to destroy the redevelopment seemed to be succeeding. You’re still here; I guess that’s something. The Uptown project does add value and improves Park Ridge’s quality of life, which you’d know if you ever did more than jump off the train and run home. And it will not always be upside down, financially, either. Bank on it.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Uptown TIF was supposed to produce $20+ million of revenue and, instead, is projected by independent TIF experts to produce $20+ million of losses – NONE of which was caused by Baldacchino or anyone other than the mayors (Wietecha, Marous and Frimark) and alderdopes who were either too stupid to realize what kind of boondoggle they were buying into, or who knowingly chose to sell out Park Ridge taxpayers by heavily subsidizing (by cash and tens of millions of dollars in bonded debt) the principals and investors of PRC through stupid City “investments” in the project.

As a Planning and Zoning commissioner, I understood the developer wants but strongly disagreed with the proposal presented to the commission. The developer wanted to build a residential building and didnt see a need for commercial space, but had to put in as small a commercial space as possible in order to make this look like a mixed use building. These were his words as he presented his plan to P&Z. He could have asked to re-zone the property as multi family but would have only been able to build half of the units originally proposed. The Fairview properties keep coming up as a comparable to this development, but there is a very big difference between the two. Fairview is (3) buildings, with commercial across the frontage and only (6) residential units above each building. It is 3 separate parcels, and the residential units comply with the R4 density requirements, the highest density allowed outside the Central Business District. The Talcott residential proposal is over 1.5 times the allowed density in an R-5 district, again only allowed in the Central Business District. We as commissioners have the zoning ordinance and comprehensive plan to give us direction in every case that comes before us. The purpose of the B-1 district is “….intended to create a business environment for a variety of commercial uses, including retail goods establishments, personal service establishments and office uses, designed to provide for the needs of local residents and enhance the economic vitality of the community. …”. The development proposed does not meet this criteria, the developer and his lawyer stated many times in his presentation that the purpose of this building was a residential development. We had asked the developer to comply with the intent of the zoning ordinance and he eliminated 2 residential units and reduced the commercial space from the original proposal. He refused to make any more reductions. We have a Zoning Ordinance – if developers don’t like it, there is a process to make changes that includes an opportunity for residents to provide comments on how the change will affect the community as a whole. I see that as being fair to all comers – residents and developers alike. I really don’t see this as a friendly vs un-friendly thing. Follow the rules – it’s as easy as that.

EDITOR’S NOTE: If it were all that “easy,” we doubt there would be so many lengthy P&Z hearings and meetings, after so much staff activity, and sometimes followed by lengthy City Council hearings and meetings.

You’ve described a process which remains dependent on a collection of variables that, ultimately, depend on what a majority of P&Z Commissioners showing up at a particular meeting decide about any given development, based on how many people from the community show up to support or oppose it.

When a developer has to decide on whether or not to buy a parcel of property – and what price to pay for it – while remaining subject to the vagaries of “a process to make changes that includes an opportunity for residents to provide comments on how the change will affect the community as a whole,” that’s significantly different from a process which involves nothing more than: “Here’s the Code, here’s what can be built there, build according to the Code or go elsewhere.”

The bait-and-switch process John Bennett describes in the current situation is frighteningly similar to what went on with the Uptown redevelopment project: The people asked for retail and tolerated residential to get it — the developer wanted only residential and grudgingly put in some retail to get it. Like Jacob laboring seven years for Rachel, only to be forced to marry Leah first, it was not what was supposed to happen. But you’re right: The existing public officials thought, silly them, that people making high five and six figures for life would be honest and protect their employers, the taxpayers, from the rapacious cleverness of the developers. Staff was not remotely up to the task, and it was fight and fall back all down the line for the elected officials. You might have done better, but it’s likely the deal would not have happened at all and we’d have three half-dead fir trees and a sputtering 50s-era event sign instead of Houlihan’s, Bluefish, Jerome’s, Chico’s, Jos. A. Bank and a number of other vendors some of us patronize and appreciate having. It did teach some of the elected officials not to trust anything “professional” staff says without independent corroboration, I can tell you that!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Nice attempt at revisionist history, but “the people” weren’t ever given a chance, via an advisory referendum, to express what they desired, what they would accept, or what they would tolerate – because the three mayors (Wietecha, Marous and Frimark) and their corresponding alderdopes didn’t want any objective vote totals that they might have to ignore in order to cut the development deal they wanted.

This had nothing to do with the mayors and alderdopes being deceived by City staffers or taken in by the “rapacious cleverness” of the developers. The Uptown TIF and related redevelopment was a top (elected officials) down (staff) process, with the elected officials happily grabbing their ankles and letting staff know it should do likewise – all while blowing smoke up each others’ kilts about all the millions of dollars the City would get from this guaranteed home-run project in the glory of which they could bask the remaining days of their lives.

Mr Trizna help me understand your response. Reading some of your previous posts, you have been very critical of the general public not being involved in the civic process. Now it seems that because I do get involved, I will just ignore my responsibilities as a commissioner and only base my decisions on what is popular with the masses that show up at meetings? What would I do if no one shows up at the meeting (which does happen from time to time)? Though I may be wrong, I don’t think I have seen you at a single P&Z meeting in the 3+ years I have been a commissioner. If you did show up, you would see that we commissioners engage in discussion on almost every case that comes before us. As a commissioner, I look at every case on an individual basis and listen to the developers and residents alike. I have heard many a passionate plea about flooding, parking, traffic, the harm to kids, and how a developer can’t make any money on the project without exceeding our zoning ordinances. We discuss because there may and has been times when an important point was brought up that was not previously considered. There are very few cases that come before us that doesn’t make someone upset but let me be clear here – I make my decisions based on the Zoning Ordinance and Comprehensive Plan. What I don’t do is make a decision based on the passion of the crowd. I do take my responsibilities very seriously. So… as a developer, would you find our commission friendly (based on the fact we discuss things) or un-friendly (based on a take it or leave it environment)? Even this question doesn’t have an easy answer. Though just following the rules does make things easy. I will say sometimes our rules are not crystal clear, and when those situations come up, we discuss – weed through the pros and cons – and decide. So just a final note, there is very few situations where P&Z makes the final decision (site plan review is one where we are the final deciders), so City Council can, and has, changed our decision.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mr. Bennett, this isn’t about you. Nor is it about P&Z.

This is about a Zoning Code that appears to be so vague, ambiguous and dysfunctional that a developer like Mr. O’Flaherty can not unreasonably expect to build a 22-unit residential property in a B-1 Retail and Office zone that, had it been zoned at the highest residential rating of R-4, would only qualify for 10-15 residential units.

That’s just plain goofy.

And it creates an untenable position for City staff, you folks on P&Z, and the aldermen who sometimes review P&Z decisions. And it creates unfriendliness for those developers who find themselves investing in that kind of uncertainty.

Your cardboard caricatures of elected officials are much more entertaining than the real human beings who believed staff were “professional” and that developers were not rapacious. They may have been dopes or dupes, but not the power-mad egomaniacs you keep describing. Stop projecting already!

EDITOR’S NOTE: You’re right…elected officials who believed staff were “professional” and/or “that developers were not rapacious” could have been mere “dopes or dupes” and not “power-mad egomaniacs.” But that would have made them virtually so stupid and inept that they would have been hard-pressed to support themselves through gainful employement.

So while a few of them may have qualified for aggravated mopery with intent to gawk status, we’re sticking with “power-mad egomaniacs.” Or at least “arrogant ego-maniacs.”

Mr Trizna, thank you for your clarification. What seemed to be directed at me and my fellow commissioners is your statement…. “You’ve described a process which remains dependent on a collection of variables that, ultimately, depend on what a majority of P&Z Commissioners showing up at a particular meeting decide about any given development, based on how many people from the community show up to support or oppose it.” I believe the majority of us are committed to upholding our responsibilities. Sometimes I just don’t understand how a developer that wants to build a 20 story building gets beyond the front door of city hall. This development is another example – why would anyone think they could build at a density higher than allowed anywhere else in the city? Especially in a B-1 district! While the code has it flaws, I think the intent is very clear. I guess the lawyers will decide if intent is enough. In the meantime, I hope our city council is working up a draft resolution to this loophole and send it to P&Z asap.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mr. Bennett:

I can see how you drew that conclusion, but I assure you that language was directed at the process and the Code that add more variables than you and your commission should have to grapple with.

Looks like city council already discussing amendments:

It pains me to sit in on the PZ meetings. Only 2 people up there ever put into the discussion. They don’t have the balls to say no, they always skirt around it. Literally, you never hear a no. Another thing that’s always in the back of my head while listening to them is I always wonder if the Council will over-ride their decision. It does get very repetitious there, have a developer ask for a 20 unit variance and then settle for a 10….. I like the above poster with the Lake County reference. Code is code. The market is turning up, more interest in properties here. There will be more developers willing to come in withing the scope of code. Look at the healthclub guy that came in right after O”Flaherty. He came in within the code and is willing to work with the town. They need to start shooting these guys down from the start, no variances

EDITOR’S NOTE: We agree wholeheartedly…BUT. In order to do that we need to have a Zoning Code that doesn’t have all the wiggle room and subjectivity this one has. And then we need P&Z members who will stick to their guns and enforce the Code as written, rather than contorting themselves like Gumby to make the developer’s deal work – at least for developments (or developers?) favored by certain P&Z members or City staff.

The lawsuit has started. Residents are being summoned!

EDITOR’S NOTE: No surprise there, although we understand the SLAPP claims are being released and the citizens who were sued for speaking out at a public meeting will be out of the suit shortly.

Best of luck to the board members and the residents of Park Ridge. Don’t let this greedy developer intimidate you. O’Flaherty won’t get very far with this lawsuit, which I believe is self-defeating. Thanks for keeping the Northwest side a nice place to live for your residents. Keep up the good work!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Whether the developer gets or doesn’t get “very far,” the Zoning Code clearly needs to be amended so that the kind of loopholes he is trying to exploit get closed before more lawsuits are filed.

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