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City Council strikes a blow to aldermanic prerogative over zoning

By a vote of 33 to 13, the Council endorsed a 297-unit residential development near O’Hare Airport over the objections of local Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st).

Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st).
Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st) talks to Council members about a zoning proposal for an apartment building near O’Hare Airport.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

After a personal plea from Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a divided City Council on Wednesday approved a zoning change that “makes a statement” about affordable housing and aldermanic prerogative over zoning.

By a vote of 33 to 13, the Council endorsed a 297-unit residential development at 8535 W. Higgins Road near O’Hare Airport — with 20% of those units designated as affordable — over the objections of local Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st).

Lightfoot said she “personally went to the site to see it for myself.” The mayor said the affordable housing units help airport workers now forced to travel “an hour-plus and, in some instances, two hours one-way” to work.

“I don’t have to give you the history of segregation in this city, and how housing is at the heart of it. Not allowing certain people to be in certain places — particularly when it comes to affordability,” the mayor told alderpersons Wednesday.

Lightfoot said she has a “great deal of respect” for Napolitano and she “rarely weighs in” on affordable housing projects.

But she made the exception in this case because she believes it is so important for alderpersons to rise above their own parochial interests and their desire to preserve aldermanic prerogative over zoning.

“This is critical for our city. It’s critical for us to make a statement about affordability and where it can be located,” the mayor said.

“If we’re gonna remain competitive at our airport — if we’re gonna make sure that we have workers that can fill the jobs that are there that our vendors are struggling to fill, this is a necessary project that must move forward. ... This gives them the opportunity to actually be closer to a job that they need. Closer to a job that’s gonna make a difference in the lives of their families.”

Napolitano told the Zoning Committee on Tuesday that the development will add to traffic congestion, burden already crowded schools and hurt landlords who struggle to find renters in small buildings.

“The biggest problem here is, today while you’re advocating for a great cause, you’re taking away your right to decide what happens in your ward tomorrow,” Napolitano told his colleagues.

“You’re putting it somewhere where that community doesn’t want the development.”

“I’m in the hot seat right now,” he said. “You’re gonna be in this hot seat tomorrow.”

Lightfoot campaigned on a promise to eliminate aldermanic prerogative, which is at the heart of the indictment of Ald. Edward Burke (14th) and countless other City Council scandals over the years.

Hours after taking office, Lightfoot issued an executive order stripping alderpersons of their control over licensing and permitting in their wards.

She has threatened to do the same for their control over zoning in their wards but that would require a City Council vote she is almost certain to lose.

Nevertheless, Wednesday’s one-off vote sets a precedent for overriding local control over zoning that will almost certainly be followed in other wards.

“If the precedent that it sets is there must be affordable housing in every area of our city, I’m all for that. We have to break the grip of segregation. And this is one way that we do it. We put affordable units everywhere,” the mayor said after the Council meeting.