Elijah Muhammad House

The Elijah Muhammad house, 4847 S. Woodlawn Ave. 

A new ordinance from Ald. Sophia King (4th) that would disallow cultural institutions in certain residential districts has garnered significant opposition from preservation groups, art organizations and house museums across the city. 

King’s original proposal, which she introduced to City Council in December 2020, changed the city’s zoning code to no longer allow cultural exhibits and libraries to be built “by-right” (meaning they do not need a special review process for approval) in residential districts. 

Instead, those institutions would have been banned by default in seven of the city’s eight residential zoning districts. They would then need a spot rezoning approved by the City Council; in the case of the 8th zoning district (RM 6-6.5) approval from the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals would have been required.

“The proposed ordinance was prompted by concerns from community members about several organizations wanting to change existing homes into museums and learning that there was not a process in place for current residents to weigh in,” King wrote in response to a request for comment from the Herald. 

“Our ordinance is being proposed in response to those concerns and to protect existing residents who live in those areas by giving them a voice on a matter that may significantly impact their community, quality of life and property values.”

In the past couple of days, groups across the city have come forward to vocally oppose the ordinance, charging that it would make it more difficult to build new neighborhood-level institutions like art galleries and house museums.

“This proposed ordinance will create an extreme hardship for many of these institutions and will make the founding of new museums, like those being envisioned for the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley House, the Lu and Jorja Palmer House and the Phyllis Wheatley House almost impossible to achieve,” Ward Miller, executive director of the nonprofit Preservation Chicago, told the Herald. 

Preservation Chicago started a petition earlier this week entitled “REJECT the Ordinance that would Block the Emmett Till & Mamie Till-Mobley House Museum!” As of Friday afternoon, it had more than 5,600 signatures. 

King to introduce a more permissive substitute ordinance 

King also shared a substitute ordinance with the Herald that she plans to present at next Tuesday’s meeting of the Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards. 

The amended legislation only disallows cultural institutions in the three residential districts with detached single-unit houses. In other residential areas of the city, the house museums or neighborhood galleries would be “special use,” and require approval by the Zoning Board of Appeals. (Generally, that requires the support of the local alderman.) 

Under King’s new ordinance, for instance, the Emmett Till home — which became a landmark this past January — would not be disallowed, but instead would need approval of the Zoning Board of Appeals. 

The Zoning Code under its “public and civic use group” category currently defines cultural exhibits and libraries as entities that provide the public or quasi-public service of a “museum-like preservation and exhibition of objects in one or more of the arts and sciences, gallery exhibition of works of art, or library collection of books, manuscripts, etc., for study and reading.” (Colloquially, many of these institutions are called house museums.)

Ald. King’s substitute ordinance splits cultural exhibits and libraries — currently grouped together in the zoning code — into two subgroups.

The proposal then bans any new Cultural Exhibits from being developed in residential single-unit (detached) districts, but allows them to be developed in residential two-flat, townhouse and multi-unit districts, if reviewed and approved by the Zoning Board of Appeals. 

The proposed ordinance would not change how Libraries are dealt with in residentially zoned districts. They would still be allowed by-right in all residentially zoned districts, as they are in the current zoning code.

In response to a question from the Herald about “grandfathering” existing Cultural Exhibits in residentially zoned districts, a spokesman for the City’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD) wrote, “Existing museums operating in districts whose zoning designation changes from permitted to special use would become legal special uses. If the zoning district no longer permits the use at all, existing museums would become legal non-conforming uses.” That is, all existing Cultural Exhibits or House Museums would remain legal. 

Multiple house museums have been proposed or are actively in the process of being developed in the Hyde Park, Kenwood, Woodlawn and Bronzeville neighborhoods. These include:

  • Elijah Muhammad House, 4847 S. Woodlawn Ave., zoned RS-1
  • Lou Palmer House, 3656 S. King Drive, zoned RM-5.
  • Muddy Waters House, 4339 S. Lake Park Ave, zoned RM-5
  • Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House, 5128 S. Michigan Ave., zoned RM-5
  • Emmett Till-Mobley House, 6427 S. St. Lawrence Ave., zoned RT-4

The original Elijah Muhammad House — the longtime home of the Nation of Islam leader — is located in a residential single-unit (detached) zoning district. It is the only house museum being developed in the Hyde Park-Kenwood area that would not be allowed without City Council approval if Ald. King’s new ordinance were enacted.

But Department of Building records show that Wendy Muhammad — the house’s owner, who is planning to turn the building into a house museum — was issued a permit by the city on January 20 that would allow the building to become a house museum. 

The permit describes $2.4 million in proposed renovations, including the installation of a five-car parking area, a bike rack, and an accessible ramp, according to Chicago Cityscape

The DPD spokesperson said that projects that already had a construction permit would be grandfathered and permitted to continue building by-right, as under the previous process. That means the Muhammad house may not be subject to King’s ordinance. 

The other institutions on the list would be allowed to develop as house museums with the approval of the Zoning Board of Appeals, which involves a public hearing.

Miller said that he still worried about the substitute ordinance.  “The ordinance and the substitute ordinance proposed by Alderwoman King, still present many challenges to small house museums and non-profit organizations across Chicago,” he wrote.

“For more than half a century, these institutions have co-existed in neighborhoods and communities across our City, they have added to its richness and diversity and continued to do so, and with this ordinance and even the substitute ordinance, so much is at risk. One has to ask, why bring this up now, and what are the reasons behind such an ordinance and such restrictions? Is this in response to a new museum and if so, why is this an issue?”

King, for her part, said that formalizing a community engagement process is important because of the effect that house museums can have on neighborhoods. “Museums by their very nature are public attractions that can bring large numbers of people to them. Currently, individuals can ‘as of right’ turn their homes into museums, add stores to sell goods, and bring hundreds of people to the neighborhood, without adding parking and without any consideration for existing residents,” she wrote. 

“And by the way, they can also file for non-profit status and take their homes off the tax rolls. The ordinance we are proposing would bring transparency, community input and a process to a decision that impacts so many.”

A history of zoning debates in Kenwood 

This is not the first time that non-residential use of buildings has become a flashpoint among community members in Kenwood.

In 2013, Jennifer Pritzker, through Tawani Enterprises, proposed a zoning change for the Blossom and MacArthur Houses, at 4850 and 4852 S. Kenwood Ave. Tawani Enterprises had proposed to renovate the two badly-in-need-of-repair Frank Lloyd Wright houses as bed-and-breakfasts. In order for the renovations to happen, the zoning for the area would have to be changed from residential single-unit (detached) to residential two-flat, townhouse and multi-unit.

During a public meeting on the proposed zoning change hosted by then-4th Ward Ald. Will Burns, a group of community members, “vehemently opposed a commercial enterprise opening on the residential street,” the Herald reported at the time. 

“I bought in this neighborhood because I wanted to live in a single-family neighborhood,” said Kenwood resident Dr. Anita Blanchard at the meeting. “It will bring transients into our neighborhood, people who are just here for a few days right across the street from a park and a school.”

Burns chose not to move forward with the zoning change.

Afterward, Tawani said in a statement, "We were disappointed and surprised Alderman (Burns) made such a quick decision not to move forward with the zoning change, especially because there appears to be many people in the Kenwood neighborhood in favor of the project."

The Herald will report on next Tuesday’s Zoning Committee meeting.

Editor

Christian Belanger graduated from the University of Chicago in 2017. He has previously written for South Side Weekly, Chicago magazine and the Chicago Reader.

(1) comment

Ross Petersen

I think it is challenging enough to put together these small Museums, and this just adds another complicated, expensive step. I am also uncertain about the role of Aldermanic privilege in these decisions, and how much 'say' an Alderman might have.

Many museums, cultural institutions got their start in this way, in houses; the HP Art Center, now a substantial gallery / school, is one example.

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