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The Birth of Effectiveness?

It’s as old as dirt, but what better way to nurture hope than through change, or the promise of change.  Obama did it, see sweeping election.  What comes after is open for analysis.  The first and second quarter reports are in for the recent changes in the DoZ, and this Intern can’t find anything to complain about, although he’d like to.

Take this: interior renovation of a commercial storefront in a historic skyscraper down by M. Park.  Only days before the scheduled appointment, the architect is able to push it back (2) days; no muss, no fuss.  The morning before the meet, the intern takes the plans to Landmarks to unfreeze the hold that would show up on Zoning’s radar for sure.  He gets a stamp.  Then on to the corner bakery for a light lunch, and next, to the 12:30 meet, (10) minutes early.  Muscle memory puts him right to sleep, but alas, he awakens to the calling of his address within half an hour.  The Landmark stamp impresses the plan reviewer, who issues a Zoning stamp not long after.

It was the least painful experience this side of child birth, says the Intern.  But was it a birth, or just the passing of gas? Is this effective government or is it just that no one is building?  If I ever experience it again, I’ll let you know. We’re waiting to hear.

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Here at DoZ-OFF we were living on a prayer, fed lean from the table scraps left by Zoning, indoctrinated to believe our captors were our saviors.  No more!  A policy change at Zoning has opened the door for us to get fat off the land, or at least to save us the wait.  Zoning no longer accepts walk-in appointments! Since May 1st, zoning plan examination reviews for building permits are scheduled exclusively through the online building permit application process.  No more waiting; no more snoozing.  No more subversion?  Well, two out of three ain’t bad.

This change comes on the heels of… who knows what?!  How any of this works is still a mystery to us, but we are happy to witness a change.  We did not think we would see one in this lifetime; we were doing this for our children.  We’re claiming the victory as our own.  We’ve been wrong before, but we have a suspicion that everyone’s interest and participation in DoZ-OFF had something to do with it.  So, thanks for that.  “I think I hear singing in the street,” says the Intern Architect.  [There is no singing in the street, but we’ll let you know if it starts.]

The whole thing, including travel time, took less than an hour and a half.  The appointment with the Dept. of Buildings, right next to the Dept. of Zoning at City Hall, was made a week in advance by the expeditor: no muss, no fuss.  Project Manager L asked a few questions about the self-certified project, made sure the Intern Architect had pertinent info on plans and forms, and asked him to send a letter to the neighbor and alderman (via certified mail) indicating excavation work within 5′ of the property line.  This requirement was news to both expeditor and Intern, it was thought the letter was only required with work within 5′ of the adjacent building (which was not the case with this project).  Did the code change?  No, the interpretation of the code changed.  No problem, now its on the books, assumed to be universally accepted among all Project Managers.

Interpretations of codes do change, even codes themselves change.  In fact, that’s how codes are kept relevant, and objective.  They remain adaptable to unseen conditions.  But they are not to be subjectively interpreted on a case by case basis with no change or update to the code itself.  That would be an abuse of discretion, a take-the-law-into-your-own-hands kind of situation, like in Dirty Harry.

Maybe that’s how Mr. G sees himself, the lone rebel administrator of zoning and land use planning justice, and not the trusted civic employee, as we see him.  Here’s a scene that wasn’t in the movie:  Mr. G passes the expeditor in the waiting area after the architect acquiesces in a meeting with stoic Zoning administrators.  He’s got a rare smirk on his face and says, “I had a meeting with your client this afternoon.”  “Oh? How’d it go?” asks the expeditor.  “You’ll have to ask your client,” smile full blown:  justice dealt, personal vendetta achieved, our hero vindicated!

It’s worth saying again: the Intern took the train in the morning for a scheduled DoB appointment, had a professional meeting with PM L, and then took the train home for the price of a transfer (’cause it only took about forty-five minutes!).

Divine intervention.

The architect of record leaves city hall, having just come from a meeting with (2) zoning administrators, going to bat for the client and the Intern.  He has (3) sets of drawings stamped with zoning approval, but is filled with mixed emotions.  His cosmic understanding of Zoning is incomplete, same goes for the rest of us.  In an attempt to achieve balance, we had to consult the oracle.  The oracle says:

If you lose your keys, you might put yourself in their place and ask, where would I be?  Then you might be able to find your keys through a sequential path of logic, or you might just stumble across them by dumb luck.  Both result in a found set of keys, but only one path demonstrates that something is at work here beyond your understanding, a higher order.  Since there appears to be no sequence of logic here, it fits that Zoning exhibits not simply a higher degree but an altogether different level of complexity.  Some might call it divine.

Thank you, oracle.  Balance has been restored!  A separation of church and state?  It’s just not possible.  That’s like trying to take the white out of rice.

Editorial:

Here at Chicago’s long-overdue Dept. of Zoning Oversight Fellowship Forum…

After winning a new pair of nice Italian leather business casuals in an office coin toss, the Intern Architect finds himself back at the gates of Zoning, a renewed sense of purpose.  The project is a small addition to a legal brick 2-flat that is voluntarily converting to a single family home.  All parties agree (the architects and expeditors have teamed up), they cross their fingers and say, this one looks pretty clear cut, we should not have a problem.

The owner currently lives in both units with an old cat, an older dog, a couple turtles and a snake(?).  The addition would take the place of a back porch and stair for the two units and would include a stair from the first floor to grade, but not from the 1st to the 2nd floor.  He would like to forgo the back stair to 2nd floor, which is not required in a single family home.

An email from the expediters had warned that Zoning supervisor Mr. G had gotten his hands on this one and was asking for the walls of the front foyer and enclosed stair to be removed to insure its single family use, citing a general zoning “policy”, but not a specific ordinance which the proposed work would violate.  Everyone involved believes this is because there is no such violation, just a general paranoia on Mr. G’s part, an unfounded suspicion of ill-intent.

Meeting in the lobby, the expeditor seems out of breath, at his wits end.  He arrived at 5am, got the 3rd spot in line, and then a meeting at 9am with plan examiner E. and Mr. G, where he struggled to bring reason to the vague assertion of tear down these walls, just because… Based on this meeting, the Intern Architect (representing the architect, with proper papers in tow) is able to meet with the man to seek clarification.  Mr. G could not be more inarticulate with his clarification.  He asks why the work couldn’t be done, scoffs at added expense, grumbles responses, averts eyes, avoids specifics, questions credentials, says I don’t want to talk to you, and is about to walk away when the Intern uses the only venue of accountability available to him.  He asks for an official rejection letter, which states the specific ordinances on which the project was rejected.  Mr. G. grabs the plans and heads to back to follow pesky protocol.

An hour later, the plans re-emerge with a rejection letter that states: “the Zoning Dept. interprets this as a separate dwelling unit…”, listing a number of erroneous reasons why this is to be considered a two-flat (citing a glossary as one of the violated ordinances).  There seem to be other agendas at work here, besides those listed among the city ordinances, the only official zoning “policy”.  The intern can only think, I wore my new shoes for this.

Beware the Jabberwock!

Following a relatively smooth visit to Zoning, (5.5) hours, the Intern is off on his scavenger hunt.  The plan was to change the scope of the project to exclude the breezeway, but leave the deck above for cover from the house to the coach house, in other words, to move forward as of right.  And it worked, so long as this list is fulfilled.

First stop: Driveways, to determine whether or not an application is needed to remove the property’s driveway and to restore it to it’s original condition, as a parkway.  Second stop: CDOT (dept. of trans.), to acquire the application to remove the property’s driveway and restore it to a parkway, for which there is none. Instead, the licensed public way contractor that the owner hires will acquire his/her own permit.  However, the driveway in question may have been constructed illegally, without permit. But do you need a permit to return an non-permitted driveway to its original state?  Wouldn’t you need an un-permit?

Is this the rabbit hole in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass…, is this the Queen and her jesters and her court?  The Intern debates whether he should spend all afternoon untwisting the tangled knots of Zoning logic, or get a smoothie and call it a day.  He takes Carroll’s warning, “Beware the Jabberwock, my son!  The claws that bite,  the jaws that catch!” and goes for the smoothie.

The next day. Third stop: wait for a call from Zoning Inspector D., who’s to perform an interior inspection on the property, determining legality of coach house dwelling units, a task which records left indeterminable.  This is hashed out over the next couple weeks of missed phone calls and better things to do.  Zoning Inspect. D. turns out to be a decent fellow, and when all is said and done, the Intern finds it takes less effort to simply participate in the scavenger hunt than it does to ask why.  Has our Intern achieved a Zen triumph over nonsense or simply a worn resolve?  I think we’re losing him…