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Committee OKs revamp of Chicago plumbing code to expand use of PVC pipe, allow more gender-neutral restrooms

Aldermen also granted historical landmark designation to the Muddy Waters house, 4339 S. Lake Park Ave. The two-flat was built in 1891 and served as the home of the blues legend from 1954 to 1973.

PVC piping.
PVC piping could be used in more applications under revisions to Chicago’s plumbing code that were approved Tuesday by a City Council committee.
Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan to relax Chicago’s plumbing code to ease the financial burden on homeowners and businesses sailed through a City Council committee Tuesday, paving the way for expanded use of plastic pipe and construction of more “gender-neutral restrooms.”

At the behest of newly appointed Buildings Commissioner Matthew Beaudet, the Zoning Committee signed off on several changes.

One would allow expanded use of PVC plastic drain, waste and vent piping, which is now confined to above-ground uses in residential buildings no higher than three stories.

The changes would allow PVC drain pipe to be used for the residential portion of buildings up to 60 feet or five stories high, even if a portion of the building houses commercial space.

PVC pipe also would be permitted for residential use underground “if it’s separated completely from the commercial use. But if they’re both using the same, then it would be cast iron,” Beaudet told aldermen.

“These expanded options for residential use will be a tremendous asset to homeowners seeking to stay in their homes and for multi-family residences, especially affordable housing,” the new commissioner said.

Even with the changes, Chicago would retain its longstanding requirement of copper pipes for drinking water. Some cities allow “other materials” to be used, but after consulting “industry groups” and the Department of Water Management, City Hall decided not to relax that part of the code.

Another change allows “small storefront businesses,” including restaurants serving 30 people or less, to provide just one, single-user restroom.

“By reducing the amount of floor space required to be set aside for restrooms, it increases the amount of floor space that can be used for business activities. … In a small restaurant, there might be room for an additional two-seat table,” Beaudet told aldermen.

“This will help tremendously as businesses emerge from the pandemic and new businesses seek to open in your commercial corridors and neighborhoods.”

Gender-neutral bathrooms in place of separate ones for men and women would free up floor space in restaurants and other businesses.
Gender-neutral bathrooms in place of separate ones for men and women would free up floor space in restaurants and other businesses.
Associated Press

Also, the committee OK’d adding provisions for gender-neutral restrooms — with gender-neutral signs — that take up less space and, therefore, free up more revenue-generating floor space for larger restaurants and businesses.

If, as expected, the full Council approves the change, so-called “single-user toilet rooms” could be used to provide required toilet facilities, “either in combination with or in place of male and female, multi-stall restrooms,” the commissioner said.

The ordinance also allows “all-gender restrooms with multiple private toilet stalls and shared sinks,” Beaudet said. That option includes requirements to “ensure safety and privacy for all users,” he said.

“These changes help create restrooms that are more usable and welcoming to not just transgender people, but everyone,” Beaudet said.

“For example, a parent who doesn’t want to send their child into an opposite-gender restroom alone or an elderly person who needs assistance from an opposite-gender caregiver.”

The changes also would clarify requirements for water safety, water-conserving plumbing fixtures and swimming pool design as part of a series of updates to “better align” the plumbing code with the Chicago building code revamped two years ago.

Also on Tuesday, the Zoning Committee broadened the umbrella of property owners who can take advantage of Lightfoot’s slow-trickle of a plan to replace lead service lines.

Last year, the City Council authorized a permit fee waiver worth up to $3,100 for homeowners who voluntary agree to replace their lead service lines. The problem is, only 20 homeowners took the city up on the mayor’s officer.

The expanded ordinance would offer the same break to churches and other not-for-profits.

Muddy Waters house OK’d for landmark status

Aldermen also granted historical landmark designation to the Muddy Waters house, 4339 S. Lake Park Ave.

The two-flat was built in 1891 and served as the home of the blues legend from 1954 to 1973. Chandra Cooper, Waters’ great grand-daughter and the current owner, requested the designation.

Kandalyn Hahn of the Chicago Department of Planning and Development said the “hospitality extended to Chicago musicians and musicians who came to record in the city made the home an unofficial center” for the Chicago blues community.

“It was close to the city’s concentration of record distributors and independent record companies like Chess Records as well as the blues clubs of the South Side, making it a natural gathering place for other blues musicians,” Hahn told aldermen.

“Musicians were welcomed at all hours. Not only food and drink, but lodging was also offered to traveling musicians like Howlin’ Wolf and Chuck Berry. Band members — including Otis Spann and James Cotton — lived in second-floor apartments. Rehearsals were held in the basement and would spill outside to the yard on warm days.”

Ald. Sophia King (4th), whose ward includes the Muddy Waters Museum, said Waters was a “huge contributor” to the blues and rock-and-roll.

“Having his particular home landmarked here in Chicago would be not only something that recognizes his contributions but also recognizes the contribution of the blues to Chicago,” King said.