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Nolan Zaroff presents on the Woodlawn Plan Consolidation Report during the Chicago Plan Commission meeting on Thursday, May 21. 

The Chicago Plan Commission (CPC) passed the Woodlawn Plan Consolidation Report on Thursday afternoon, after deferring it for two previous meetings over concerns about community engagement and its relation to the city’s affordable housing ordinance for the neighborhood. 

The consolidated report, which aggregates past plans for the neighborhood in order to provide a framework for development going forward, went through with a near-unanimous vote. 

Earlier this week, Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) told the Herald that she wanted to see more community engagement from the city before the report was passed. Specifically, she said there should be more of a conversation around housing affordability.

At Thursday’s CPC meeting, Taylor reiterated this point, saying that she thought affordable housing legislation for the neighborhood should be passed ahead of adopting the report. 

“I just want us to be done with housing to move forward,” she said. “It’s urgent that we address housing, and it’s been on hold and we haven’t been back to negotiate. For me, that’s not disingenuous — that’s me saying you can’t put the horse before the carriage.” 

City planners, including Department of Planning and Development (DPD) Commissioner Maurice Cox, argued that the report gives a “framework” for housing legislation.

“This report is like the first step, and we have many, many more steps to take before we get there,” he said. “We have to have a sense of conviction that we can take the first step, and not suffer a kind of paralysis of being fearful that if we take a first step, you know, that somehow we can’t control the next step after that.” 

Department of Housing Commissioner Marisa Novara said that there was no set date for when the affordable housing ordinance would appear in front of City Council. “We just received Tuesday night communication about more dialogue that is needed, and that will be ongoing, so we do not have a date certain on that,” she said.

Cox also noted the importance of having the report in place ahead of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review of the construction of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park. 

“There is an expectation that when we go through the federal process, the NEPA process, that this community has adopted something that addresses the impacts of that investment on Woodlawn …. I do not want this summer to come around, and we have no framework,” he said. “The future is coming, and it’s barreling forward, and it is going to eat us for lunch if we don’t take some action.” 

DPD planner Nolan Zaroff, during his presentation on the plan in front of the CPC, also noted some of the changes that have been made to it over the past few months, including the incorporation of another past plan for the neighborhood and a more detailed explanation of which goals from past plans have already been accomplished. 

As he did during a community meeting Tuesday night, Zaroff also noted that the city considers the report open-ended and flexible. “This is the beginning of a process, the beginning of a conversation, and not the end of a process,” he said. “I think those are important things to underscore, that it’s a living document.”  

Cox himself was at pains to emphasize that community engagement would continue, suggesting that it would even be better to refer to the object under consideration as a “report” instead of a “plan.” 

“This is the Woodlawn plan. It’s really a consolidated report. And maybe we should just take the name “plan” out of it, call it the consolidated report on Woodlawn — just like, call it what it is,” he said. 

CPC Chair Teresa Córdova echoed Cox. “This is not a plan. This is a report on previous plans,” she said. “I think that’s important for us to keep in mind because even in the community meeting Tuesday evening, and then when we heard several people speak before us today, part of their objections to it and part of their concern about it is because they were reacting to what they believed was a plan.” 

Taylor also raised objections to the plan’s recommendation that the city create a zoning overlay district for Woodlawn, which would provide a set of overarching development guidelines and restrictions for the neighborhood. “What’s wrong with the zoning process we already have now?”, she asked. 

Cox said an overlay district, paired with the form-based code he instituted while head of planning in Detroit, would make the zoning code more publicly accessible. “I would defy Chicago to show me where any person — any layperson, Mrs. Harris down the street — understands what goes on a piece of vacant property,” he said. “The whole idea of going to the form was to make this zoning stuff legible and understandable to any person.” 

He also walked back earlier comments from DPD about the significance of the zoning recommendations. (At the February CPC meeting, Zaroff called it “the main thing that comes out of this report.”) 

“The underlying zoning is the law, and this ordinance would have to be brought to (City) Council and approved. It’s a public process and we’ll have a full public vetting,” Cox said. “This kind of information and the specificity of this kind of information does not exist in the consolidated report. These are our next steps.”

Reporter

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

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