The Council’s Zoning Committee met for three hours yesterday to relax medical marijuana restrictions in one type of downtown zoning district and approve about 40 zoning applications, including one that received a significant amount of pushback at the Plan Commission meeting in March, but had no residential opposition at yesterday’s meeting. 

Present: Chairman Danny Solis (25), Vice Chair James Cappleman (46), Joe Moreno (1), Michelle Harris (8), Ed Burke (14), Raymond Lopez (15), David Moore (17), Matt O’Shea (19), Roberto Maldonado (26), Walter Burnett (27), Brendan Reilly (42), John Arena (45), Ameya Pawar (47).

Medical Marijuana

The Zoning Committee approved a plan from Ald. Ed Burke (14) to expand the boundaries in the city’s downtown area where medical marijuana dispensaries are allowed to open up shop. The zoning code divides the city’s downtown area into four sub-categories: Downtown Core (“DC”), Downtown Residential (“DR”), Downtown Mixed-Use (“DX”), and Downtown Service (“DS”). When the City Council set the boundary parameters for where medical marijuana dispensaries could locate after the state approved the pilot program, they excluded the DC and DR districts from eligibility. The ordinance the committee approved yesterday would make available the DC district for dispensaries.

“After looking at this, I am not really aware of any compelling justification for distinguishing between DX, DS, and DC zoning districts with regard to medical cannabis dispensing organizations,” Ald. Burke testified. “I don’t know if it is an oversight, but I think that to continue to permit the code to prohibit these organizations from locating in this one DC downtown core district may not make any real sense. I don’t know if that was the intent.”

But due to the strict zoning requirements which forbid a dispensary from being 1,000 feet from a school and a child care facility, the change makes limited space available because of the high concentration of those entities downtown.

Former State Sen. Robert Molaro testified in support of the measure, noting that there were “five or six” sites in the downtown core district that medical marijuana dispensary operators wanted to locate only to find that they were barred from doing so. After speaking to the city’s Inspector General, Corporation Counsel and Ald. Burke’s office, they could not determine why the there was a moratorium put in place, Molaro said. “So we checked with everybody, and no one seems to have a problem allowing DC to go in,” he explained, adding that the same safeguards of requiring a special use permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals and local aldermanic approval would still be in place for community input.

This is Ald. Burke’s second medical marijuana related ordinance to go through the Zoning Committee this year. In January, the Council approved a measure championed by Ald. Burke that relaxed the on-site security requirements for local dispensaries. The ordinance eliminated the requirement that dispensaries have around-the-clock security on the premises. At that January committee meeting, Ald. Brendan Reilly (42) lamented the city’s strict restrictions and the moratorium on dispensaries in the DC districts.

At yesterday’s meeting Reilly praised Burke’s ordinance, saying the outer areas of the city, where dispensaries are allowed, are not easily accessible to downtown residents, especially the elderly.

“Downtown… is surrounded by medical facilities, hospitals, where people are seeing their doctors and obsentively getting these prescriptions,” Ald. Reilly said. “One would hope that they could then also have access to this medication in a centralized location.”

Plexiglass For Vacant Homes

The committee approved another application from Ald. Burke that would add polycarbonate clear boarding to the list of materials that can legally be used to board up vacant buildings. In his testimony, Ald. Burke noted that the Buildings Department already allows use of this tough plastic to secure windows and doors. This ordinance would codify that practice into law, he explained.

Robert Klein, founder and Chairman of Safeguard Properties, a Cleveland-based company that sells the material, testified at the meeting alongside Burke. Noting that his plastic is double the price of plywood, one of the more common materials used to close off homes, Klein argued his product saves money in the long-run. He claimed homes boarded up with polycarbonate clear boarding are less likely to get vandalized or impact the property values of surrounding buildings, because the material is indiscernible from a regular window.

His testimony sounded more like an advertisement, especially with Ald. Burke’s leading questions. And Ald. Raymond Lopez (15), who represents the city’s Back of the Yards neighborhood, which has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the city, took issue to Klein’s comments that his product was the answer to fixing the city’s blighted neighborhoods.

“You can still tell a foreclosed home whether it is plywood or plastic,” Ald. Lopez noted, saying that some of the 600 foreclosed homes in his ward are secured with the plastic material. “And, while I understand you’re very much pitching the product, plywood doesn’t devalue the neighboring houses. A foreclosed home, period, devalues that property.”

Zoning Applications (Highlights)

Only one person showed up to testify against a nine-story plus penthouse building planned for 111 S. Peoria in the city’s Near West Side community. Roughly 20 residents signed up to testify against the project at the March Plan Commission meeting. None of the residents were aware that the item was listed on the deferred agenda for yesterday’s meeting, according to attorney Gregory M. Linde of the law firm Nixon Peabody. Linde is representing the Monroe Manor Condo Association, a group of residents that live to the north of the planned development.

The project proposed by LG Development would transform the surface parking lot across from Mary Bartelme Park into a condo building with 95 residential units. Ten percent of those units would be made affordable, at the request of local Ald. Walter Burnett (27). (Since LG Development filed their application before the beefed up affordable housing requirements took effect in October 2015, they took advantage of the affordable housing bonus, which lets them pay a fee for added density, and did not have to make any units affordable.)

Linde said the condo association opposes the project for three reasons: excessive bulk and density, safety reasons related to fire alley access, and “inadequate due process” by failing to notify residents that the project was on yesterday’s agenda.

Michael Ezgur, the attorney for LG Development, immediately refuted those claims. He said the density they are seeking–a change from a DS-3 to a DX-5–is consistent with surrounding zoning, which he said is a mix of DS-3, DX-5, and DX-7. Ezgur also noted that the Fire Department signed off on the plan and the project has been in the works for the past nine months. Ezgur and Ald. Burnett also lauded the various changes the developer made to the project: significantly reducing the number of on-site units, changing the makeup of those units from rentals to condos, and adding the affordable housing component.

“We need to hurry up and vote on this, so this guy can stop billing those neighbors who hired him to come and represent them. I’m sure he’s making a lot of money off them right now,” Ald. Burnett said, adding that he supports the project “100 percent.” It passed unanimously by voice vote.

Another item on the deferred agenda, a proposed four-story masonry building with 36 residential units at 2435 N. Western Ave. in the 1st Ward, received opposition from one vocal resident, Tina Lowry Harris, who lamented the “glut in the luxury rental market.” It was one of the few applications in the 1st Ward that got a hearing and passage. Most applications were deferred either at the request of the attorney or because Ald. Joe Moreno (1) could not be found when the applications in his ward were called up for consideration.

A handful of people, including the president for the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association, Robert Bank, testified against a project at 5629 W. Higgins Ave. in the 45th Ward. The applicant and owner of the property, Wojciech Lejman, applied for a zoning change to increase allowable density on site so he could demolish the existing building and construct a new two-story, five-unit residential building.

Calling the zoning change “inappropriate” and “greedy” (he accused the developer of trying to squeeze more units in the building to make a greater return on the property), Bank asked that the committee reject the plan. “There is no need for another condo in this area,” he said, equating the units planned to a “cheaper cubical in some tall apartment building.”

Local Ald. John Arena (45) called it a “modest” condo development, noting the taller, six-story condo developments across the street, and recommended passage. It was approved unanimously.  

Several applications, including Helmut Jahn’s proposed 832-foot residential tower for 1000 S. Michigan Ave., were deferred. Chairman Solis (25) directly introduced three applications for zoning changes in his ward. And Ald. Matt O’Shea (19), who recently down-zoned several swathes of 111st Street to the lowest density allowed in a commercial designated zoning district, was put in an odd position of having to backtrack on one of those plans, because a restaurant in his ward that is in the process of expanding would have been found non-conforming.