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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?

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.

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!

The Intern continues the play-by-play of his Zoning visit, which started at 7:15am:

11:35am Lulled into comfort, caught off guard, they’ve called my address!  I’m a little punchy from the coffee.  There are (10) project managers in the Dept. of Buildings, some chairs are empty at their counters, some filled with those waiting for Zoning, only (4) plan reviewer at zoning.  Plan reviewer E. takes one look at my plans and hands me to J.  He’s quiet, formal, and takes his time absorbing the project with little help from me.

11:50am I can not call basement storage of wine in a residence a Wine Cellar, but rather Storage, for fear it will be taken as a place where wine is stored and sold.  I can not call a room where one may tend to the logistics of his personal matters an Office, but rather a Study, for fear it will be taken as a place of business.  I can not call a room that looks over another room a Loft, but rather a Rec Room, for fear that it will be taken as separate residence.  I can not call a room where children play a Playroom, but rather a Living Room (even though I already have a living room), because “you just don’t want to have that on the plan.”

12:40pm Finish plan review w/ J., and I’m to come back on Monday to see the Chief, or Mr. G., who is out today,  for further interpretation.  I’m assuming this is because of the coach house (no one will touch it!), but I’m not told what to expect directly.  I have homework: to fix the semantics of the room names, to add a few dimensions to the plans, to bring pictures of the property back with me, to add a diagrammatic section of both the main building and the coach house to show the distance that the basement floor is below grade, and to delete a few erroneous plan details.  The good news is that I can skip the line on Monday and go straight to E., who will send me to J., who will review the plans with me and Mr. G.

12:45pm A much needed bathroom break.  Things I think about while in the bathroom: since it is Friday, I have the afternoon to make all the corrections, print a new set of drawings, and have the architect of record stamp them.  And I need a clean shirt for Monday, and maybe I’ll shave, but probably not.  ‘Til next time…

The intern architect documents his day, excited by the opportunity to turn misfortune into fodder:

7:50am The doors open, and the line floods in from several points, and there is disorder as the line becomes a crowd.  I feel like I may have a chance at the front of the line, but this lasts for three minutes, the line re-forms exactly as it was outside the office.  These are not strangers to this process; they are indoctrinated.  The Dept. of Zoning has not asked these people to come early, they have done so out of necessity, and the response from Zoning has not been to change their protocol, but to open their doors and fill the list for the entire day before any other department even opens.

8:00am People who’ve signed in, go to the end of the line to sign up again under a different address.

8:05am The line is done, over a hundred addresses have signed up for the day.  There is (1) plan reviewer at the counter.  Every other office on the 9th floor is not yet open: landscape, business licenses, dept. of buildings, dept. of environment, zoning board of appeals, both cashiers, plan pick-up, driveways, EPP (easy permit process, which handles the permits for the Chicago Green Homes program).  Sounds like a dream, wish the EPP was open.  But you’d need a “Green” project to take advantage of the (advertised) speedy Zoning-free Green permit process.  Guess what: this is a Chicago Green Homes project!  EPP sent me to Zoning!  They were frightened by the coach house (Chicago is deathly afraid of coach houses, banned in 1957 but still ubiquitous in most Chicago neighborhoods today).  They couldn’t even get a special meeting arranged.  Looks like the line is the end of the line.

8:30am All plan reviewers have arrived, the calling of the addresses has begun.  The list is read to the packed waiting room that spills out into every other waiting room, packed even though most of the people who showed up early have gone to get coffee, or back to work, or to finish their morning jog.  They’ll be back later in the day before their name gets called.

8:50am Tired of waiting.  I check my spot on the list, the bottom of page 2 (of 5).  He says it’ll be at least two hours.

9:00am Free internet and a really good bacon, egg, and cheese croissant and european coffee at the Corner Bakery Cafe.  I don’t usually drink coffee.  This is a treat.

11:00am They’re half-way through the 2nd sheet; there are 15 addresses before my own.  Waiting room has thinned and I get a seat next to an outlet where I can work on the structural plans for a friend’s deck in Rogers Park, for which I do not plan to get a permit.  Honestly, they couldn’t afford one.  The city is wasting people’s money on waiting rooms.  There are low murmurs of conversation, and an occasional address called out like a name in a doctor’s office.  The room has a suction, pulling the energy right out of you.  I’m feeling a bit woozy.

11:25am I’m startled from dozing, woken by a pregnant Ukrainian woman trying to stifle her laughter, uncontrollable from delirium, no doubt.  No one pays attention, their bodies are heavy and saggy.  This is how they get you, with the waiting.  There is not one sharp mind in the crowd, not one who can demonstrate or aptly convey her willingness and desire “to protect and enhance the character of our residential neighborhoods and business industrial districts, to ensure high-quality, sustainable development, and to improve the quality of life for all our residents.”*  But we want to, with vigor! Everyone here would love to enthusiastically demonstrate just how much her project complies with the City’s well-stated ordinances in the quest for this mutual goal.  And if it doesn’t comply, how can she fix it?, please, we are reasonable individuals who can work together in harmony.   Alas, we are not sharp and eager, we are sleepy, we have DOZ-ed off.

*City of Chicago – Zoning and Land Use Planning mission statement.

It’s 7:15am, friday morning, outside the locked doors of Building Permits in the lobby of the 9th floor in Chicago’s city hall.  The line stretches down the length of the hall and back out the other end, 75-long, all kinds (men, women, young, old, pregnant, jogging, speaking russian), all lining up for a Zoning review.  The intern has come back to try again, and this time he’s certain he will get his long and arduous.  By 7:45am, he is smack dab in the middle of a line of familiars, most talking amongst themselves in small groups, expeditors, architects, developers, and an occassional property owner.  The joke is that they’re giving away free permits, and that’s why the line is so long.  If we weren’t laughing, we’d be crying.

Take this: an entry-level architect brings an interior renovation project to Chicago’s Department of Zoning at 8:15am on Tuesday morning, June 2nd, 2009, hoping to start the long, arduous process of obtaining a building permit from behind the city’s fortress of ordinances.  He has clearly arrived before the office’s official opening at 8:30am, but is turned away at the gate.  The list is full; the waiting room is full.  The city’s (4) plan reviewers already have permit-seekers at their desks, studying plans and applications for the unallowable build, the unchecked use, and the unregistered driveway.  He must come back tomorrow; 6:30am is recomended.  Uncommonly crowded?  No, the same as yesterday.  The same as everyday…