Citizen Advocacy Center Applauds Elmhurst Zoning Commission for Its Thoughtful and Comprehensive Denial of Addison Street Private Development / Public Parking Garage Project. Development, Zoning and Planning Committee Should Heed Recommendation.
The Elmhurst Zoning Commission has unanimously rejected a proposal to build a private-public mixed-use building on Addison Street. The now City-owned property has been the subject of much controversy: illegal closed meetings as determined by the Illinois Attorney General, City financing to the developer to purchase the property, and a request for increased building height to accommodate two additional floors for office space (including a private athletic facility) in an already saturated office market – just to name a few.
A civics lesson: The approval process for development projects requiring exceptions to the Zoning Code has three steps: 1) The Elmhurst Zoning and Planning Commission, a group of appointed (non-elected) officials, holds a public hearing wherein the applicant must prove why and how a project meets City standards for conditional use or variance from the Zoning Code; interested parties from the public have an opportunity to submit their opinions about the proposed project for the official record during this hearing; the Zoning Commission then deliberates and issues its specific “findings” and recommendations indicating if the applicant has proved its case; 2) The Zoning Commission’s recommendation then goes to the City’s Development, Planning, and Zoning Committee, a standing Committee of the City Council composed of three Aldermen selected by the Mayor. The DPZ Committee reviews the Commission report and makes a recommendation in turn to the full City Council which has the ultimate vote. The recommendations of both the Zoning Commission and the DPZ Committee are advisory and may be overturned by City Council. A vote of two-thirds of the aldermen then holding office is required to approve a project contrary to the recommendation of the Zoning Commission.
The Citizen Advocacy Center has been opposed to the Addison Street Project, not because we dispute the need for more parking, but rather because the public process around this project has been anti-democratic from the start, resulting in a proposal that was fatally flawed in several respects. While the Zoning Commission was able to consider only the information before it as submitted by the developer and signed off on by the City, we applaud the Commission’s recognition and rejection of the fatally flawed application based on the following:
• The Traffic Study included in the application identified several engineering and safety issues that were not addressed.
• The three buildings identified in the central business district as examples of buildings higher than 45 feet were distinguished individually and collectively as different from the proposed Addison Street project.
• A recent City Consultant report identified excessive unoccupied office space in downtown Elmhurst.
• It was unknown how much public parking would be lost due to a required loading dock, the addition of bike parking, and the revisions needed to accommodate engineering and safety issues, none of which were in the application.
• Safety issues identified as ‘very problematic’ were not addressed related to lot-line to lot-line development, and narrow alleys vis a vis truck/ car/ pedestrian traffic.
• The inability of the City to implement creative new pedestrian amenities in the immediate area if the requested zoning relief were allowed.
The commission further rejected the application on grounds of the plans being, as stated by the developer, “fluid and subject to change.” Approval must be based on what was submitted by the developer and commented on at the public hearing process. Altering or changing the development plan would necessitate a new application and a new public hearing.
The Citizen Advocacy Center asks that the DPZ Committee, and eventually the full City Council, concur with the recommendation of the Zoning Commission: the application as submitted should be unanimously rejected. Furthermore, the Zoning Commission report raises questions about the advisability of going forward with this project even at a building height that does not require zoning consideration.
Executive Director/Community Lawyer
Citizen Advocacy Center
182 N. York St.
Elmhurst, IL 60126
CAC Testimony in Opposition to Senate Bill 2 "The Illinois Business and Economic Advocacy and Development Act of 2013"
On behalf of the Citizen Advocacy Center, I thank you for the opportunity to present testimony at this hearing opposing Senate Bill 2 as amended, entitled “The Illinois Business and Economic Advocacy and Development Act of 2013.”
The Citizen Advocacy Center is an award winning, non-profit, non-partisan, community-based, legal organization. Its mission is to “Build Democracy for the 21st Century.” Since 1994, community lawyers have worked to build democracy by strengthening the citizenry’s capacities, resources, and institutions for self-governance. The Citizen Advocacy Center motivates individuals and community groups to seek systemic solutions to issues of public concern and works to improve democratic protocols in local and state government to ensure optimal public participation in the democratic process.
The Center’s community lawyers have worked with many community groups on their self-identified issues concerning economic development. Increasingly, government entities are relying on non-profit organizations to assist in accomplishing traditional government functions, such as economic development. The use of non-profits in pursuing the public purpose of economic development affects the ability of the public to impact government decision-making in the policy-making arena.
This bill is not “real reform” from the citizen engagement perspective.
Senate Bill 2 itself refers to the “public purpose of economic development in Illinois,” and yet the public will be kept in the dark about much of the activities of the Illinois Business and Economic Development Corporation created therein because the Corporation is not subject to Illinois Sunshine laws. Currently, non-profit organizations that perform traditional government functions are not covered by either the Illinois Freedom of Information Act or the Open Meetings Act. The Corporation is meant to assume part of the role that is currently held by the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, which is clearly a public body under Illinois Sunshine laws.
Further, there is internal inconsistency in the bill. The Illinois Economic Development Authority is described as a public instrumentality and
agency of the State exercising public and essential government functions, specifically by implementing economic development policy in the State. The Illinois Business and Economic Development Corporations shall be established for the purpose of receiving and disbursing funds from public or private sources to be used to further the overall economic development and well-being of the State. The Authority is to collaborate with the Corporation, but “the Corporation shall not be considered an agency, political subdivision, or instrumentality of the State,” and it “shall not be required to comply with any requirements that apply to a State agency or political subdivision.”
Yet, where the Corporation has deliberations that address utilization of public funding, the bill states that those meetings or portions of meetings will comply with the Open Meetings Act.
Outside of that inconsistency, there is no enforcement mechanism to ensure compliance with the Open Meetings Act. There is no authority governing the compliance of a non-profit economic development organization with the Open Meetings Act. Thus, the language in the bill to make transparent the Corporation’s discussions about the utilization of public funds is ultimately meaningless.
What is the benefit of this proposed model that the current model cannot? One answer might be that there is access to monies not available to a government entity. What percentage of assets obtained by a corollary 501(c)(3) derive from private sources and would not otherwise be available to a public body?
Another justification might be to protect confidentiality, a concern of private entities engaged in economic development. Yet the Open Meetings Act and the Freedom of Information Act protect confidentiality concerns through their enumerated exceptions. What concerns are not currently covered by those exceptions?
The reputation of the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity will only be replaced by parallel concerns in the model proposed in S.B. 2. Instead, the current concerns with the DCEO should be attended to by strengthening the legislation creating the DCEO; for example, a strategic plan by the DCEO is currently permissive in the statute, and it needs to be amended to make it mandatory.
Lack of transparency
The City Council approval of the Chicago Infrastructure Trust ordinance was a vote to value political interests over the public interest and passed with inadequate public protections despite unanswered questions from aldermen, the public and the city's inspector general. The lack of transparency surrounding the decision-making process was patently unacceptable. Transparency and accountability, particularly in government contracting and spending, are critical tools to prevent corruption, boost public confidence in government and ensure fiscal responsibility.
While generally the city has provided greater accessibility to some government information, how deep the transparency commitment is becomes evident when crucial issues such as the CIT are in play. Reasonable accountability standards such as bringing the CIT under the purview of the inspector general's office, requiring council votes on all taxpayer dollar commitments, detailing enforcement provisions, ensuring compliance with ethics and procurement ordinances, and even declaring the CIT to be a subsidiary city public body to ensure compliance with state transparency laws were ignored. This lack of accountability is also inconsistent with Illinois Nonprofit Principles and Best Practices.
Moving forward, public bodies interested in creating similar entities should embrace that the goals of democracy are broader than those of economic development and implement meaningful public interest safeguards such as those suggested. Our organizations, along with the Donors Forum, Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, League of Women Voters of Illinois and Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund believe that the people of Chicago deserve better.
— Brian Imus, director, Illinois Public Interest Research Group, and Terry Pastika, executive director, Citizen Advocacy Center, Chicago