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Archive for the ‘Intern Architect’ Category

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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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!).

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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.

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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…

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They say that all wounds heal with time, and it has been (2) weeks since his last Zoning confession (apparently, this is not enough time).  The Intern brazenly arrives at City Hall minutes after 8am, and the list is closed!  Only (2) of (4) plan reviewers are present, again, because the office does not officially open until 8:30am.  He is not a quick study.

“Can I wait?”

“You can wait to see if there’s room,” says Plan Review V., at the end of the day, he means.  The Intern pays $0.75 for his records on the 11th floor, then returns to zoning at 3:30pm, and, at 4:30pm, he is sent home empty-handed.  All in a day’s work.  How does this happen?  How is it so difficult to get on the morning list?

One theory is that the Expeditors, whose business it is to navigate the murky waters of the permit process for those who know better than to try it themselves, are in line very early to sign up their address, then get in line again and again to sign up more addresses.  The Intern confirms this theory the next day when, arriving at 7:35am,  he waits half-way through a  line, now reduced to (30) persons, and Zoning Administrator L. asks, “Is there anybody in line who hasn’t signed up once?”  He and (1) more step out of line to cut to the front.  The rest are double- and triple-dipping addresses, water-logging the Zoning list before it has a chance to be a good part of the permitting process.

The Department of Zoning encourages unhealthy competition.  Many hands are stained.  How long has it been since your last Zoning confession?

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The architects and the Intern meet with a Zoning lawyer following the denial to seek council and find the most penny-wise path for the client.  Zoning lawyer S. knows the process intimately, says the best approach is to build an argument and swallow the disdain, even if it comes back up again.  S. thinks they won’t have to go to the ZBA, they have a good case.  In regards to the breezeway they built on an archived project, breezeways from the house to the garage are usually permitted obstructions, while breezeways to coach houses are called in to question, seen case by case (i.e. ZBA).

What they have going for them in this case:

  • a reduction in the # of dwelling units (from 7 to 2), helps to lessen city’s density
  • retaining ample on-site parking, keeps cars off the street
  • breezeway will not disturb the greenway (green site line down the back of properties) because its already blocked by long buildings on either side
  • not making it less conforming, the coach house is an existing non-conforming property (built before 1957 grandfathers it in)
  • not altering the essential character of the neighborhood (actually restoring and preserving historical qualities of the building, which was built in the 1890s)

S. hints at an “abuse of discretion” on the part of Mr. G., but shies away from it.  This is a serious accusation of a city employee, as it should be. There have been serious things happening recently in Zoning (see Chi Tribune’s take, 2008), serious transparency should be taking place as a result.  S. suggests we find DOZ water records to help prove the residential use in the coach house, something that should be a matter of public record, but instead will cost $25-$50.

According to the intern, it should all be a matter of public record and public scrutiny.  Everyone should lawyer up, gives clarity, makes haste.

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Not to be duped again by early-bird specials, the Intern arrives at Zoning at 9am to meet with Mr. G.  He checks in with E. and is told he’ll be next up to see J., who currently has a plan under review. (2) Hours after arriving, J. confers with Mr. G. in the back, and the Intern’s request for Zoning approval is denied.  J. begins to type the denial letter (a necessary step to apply for a variance through the Zoning Board of Appeals).  All discussions w/ J. are futile and somewhat ambiguous as he is not the one who made the decision.

“Can I talk to Mr. G.?”  He’s hesitant,  “Yes, but I won’t give you the denial letter then, you’ll have to come back tomorrow and wait in line for it.”  It is a risk to ask for clarification from the decider in back; J. employs Zoning’s most powerful and subversive tactics for dissenters and comply-ers alike: wasting their time, assaulting them with boredom.  It seems J. does not want to bother Mr. G., but the intern does, “I’d like to talk to him.”  Back to the waiting room: they do not know how long it will take, sometimes he’s very busy.

A variance could take months as the monthly meetings of the ZBA fill up quickly like everything else around Zoning.  Why not meet twice a month?  Everyone is very busy, of course.  The downtrodden waiting room: “When I sit here, they don’t call me, when I leave… come back, they call me so fast.”  A middle-aged professional hispanic woman thinks she has just missed the calling of her address and contemplates what to do.  She is very tense.  The Intern has his own tensions, to think like a lawyer, composing his argument to build as of right, trying not to get too hot under the collar.

(It’s the coach house again!) Mr. G. is cold and calm.  He says the breezeway should be okay with a variance (as if it’s that easy).  When the Intern asks exactly what CZO this project violates, Mr G. uses a sleight of hand.  He does not read an explicit statement from the CZO because he has used his own discretion on the ordinances’ ambiguity of coach houses.  Instead, he pulls out  a Sanborn map from 1926 which lists the use of the coach house as a sign repair and storage shop, calling in to question the legality of the coach house dwelling units.  It shows this as a business, prove us otherwise. Not able to prove it on the spot, the Intern is sent to the 11th floor to apply for public records.

And the dance continues.  Mr. G. does, however, ask J. to write a denial letter, in any case.  This is the very letter that was threatened to be withheld if this meeting was called. The intern has not the heart to celebrate the small victory, just to recite a rhyme his mother used to tell him:

Here sits the Lord-Mayor; here sits his two men;

here sits the cock; here sits the hen,

here the little chick-iddies, here they fall in.

Chin-chopper, chin-chopper, chin-chopper chin!

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