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Shutting Down Lincoln Yards Was Aldermanic Privilege at its Finest

And the Burke scandal, the unwritten rule at its worst.

Image: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

Some big players had some big plans for the new Lincoln Yards project on the Chicago River. The billionaire Ricketts family, which owns the Cubs, wanted to build a 20,000-seat stadium for a minor league soccer team. LiveNation, which sells billions of dollars in concert tickets every year, wanted an entertainment district with multiple stages.

But this is Chicago, and those billionaires were thwarted by an all-powerful force: an alderman. Second Ward Ald. Brian Hopkins, citing objections from neighbors and humble music venues like the Hideout, said no the Ricketts family, and no to LiveNation.

How could a single member of the City Council have stopped a soccer team and a musical bazaar that would have drawn fans from all over the city? Why, he deployed a Chicago tradition known as aldermanic privilege, which gives aldermen final say over all building and zoning rules in their ward, like miniature mayors.

So sacrosanct is this custom that when 19th Ward Ald. Ginger Rugai proposed a cul-de-sac that was viewed as a barrier to black Chicagoans entering Beverly, all the black aldermen still voted for it. They were more concerned with protecting aldermanic privilege than they were with their constituents’ freedom to move about the city.

“Rugai can do what she wants,” said Ald. Dorothy Tillman, normally a firebrand on racial issues. “It’s her ward.”

The Lincoln Yards shutdown isn’t the first time aldermanic privilege has reared its head this year. The custom has also become an issue in the mayor’s race, because it enabled Ald. Ed Burke to extort business from a Burger King owner who wanted a permit for renovations in Burke’s 14th Ward. When one man can say yes or no to your project, you have to pay that man his money.

As a result, both Gery Chico and Bill Daley (who are suddenly trying to pretend they have nothing to do with Burke and his brand of politics) are calling for an end to aldermanic privilege. They say it’s an anachronism in the modern era, when residents can communicate directly with City Hall, without the intercession of an alderman. They also say it has contributed to the city’s racial and economic segregation, by allowing aldermen to block public and affordable housing in their wards.

“For more than 80 years, aldermen have been allowed to control who gets a building permit, who gets a liquor license, or a parking lot,” Chico said. “No single alderman should be allowed to hold this kind of power over permits, land use, and housing development…Campaign contributions should not be exchanged for a liquor license or for allowing affordable housing in a certain neighborhood.”

Daley’s proposal, on the other hand, is part of a plan that would undermine the entire ward system, by reducing the number of alderman from 50 to 15.

“Now, we have this latest scandal on top of years of scandals, I think it’s time in the 21st century that we fundamentally look at the way we’re structured and the way we do things,” Daley told the Tribune. “Surely, Emanuel, Rich [Daley] and Harold Washington all pledged to bring a cleaner government, but some of the things I’m proposing now are stepping back and saying, ‘Wait a minute. Maybe we need to change the way government works, change the system in order to get the results the public wants.’”

Ed Bachrach and Austin Berg, authors of the book The New Chicago Way, object to aldermanic privilege. They see it as part of a deal in which the mayor lets the alderman do whatever they want in their wards, while they let the mayor do whatever they want on big matters, such as writing the city’s budget. Eliminating aldermanic privilege, the authors believe, would force aldermen to pay more attention to citywide matters, and perhaps challenge the prerogatives of an autocratic mayor.

One could argue, though, that Hopkins shutting down Lincoln Yards was aldermanic privilege at its best. “Ward” means “to protect,” and overseeing a ward means protecting your constituents — in this case from the crowds and traffic a soccer stadium would have attracted, and from the competition a concert monopoly would have imposed on small nightclubs.

Aldermanic privilege allows aldermen to preserve the neighborhood character of their wards. Neighborhood life is the essence of the Chicago experience. This isn’t Houston, where there’s no zoning and developers can build an office park next to a ranch house.

The difficulty of eliminating aldermanic privilege is that, legally, there’s no such thing. The Municipal Code doesn’t give the aldermen these powers. It’s simply an unspoken agreement on the City Council: you don’t vote against my project, and I won’t vote against yours. Aldermanic privilege will only disappear when the aldermen decide to give up their privileges.

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