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CHICAGO-The city doesn’t need a master plan, a panel of divergent experts told the Lambda Alpha International and Real Estate Investment Association symposium here. What’s more, Chicago’s long-standing tradition of aldermanic prerogative over zoning matters serves the populace well, another panel said.

The discussion comes while the city is beginning to rewrite its 44-year-old zoning ordinance, which includes archaic oddities going back at least another half-decade.

Mesa Development, LLC principal Richard A. Hanson, whose most recent development is the 356-unit, 57-story Heritage at Millennium Park condominium tower, believes the market is the ultimate master planner.

“As far as I’m concerned, there are only three words that matter: location, location, location. And location works because the market accepts the location,” says Hanson, whose Millennium Park site at Wabash Avenue and Randolph Street wasn’t always considered a prime residential spot. “I don’t think locations get created by accident. But I’m not sure they’re created by a master plan.”

Adds Charles H. Shaw, developer of projects ranging from Lake Point Tower to Homan Square, “You design to a market. You don’t market a design…It’s very hard to say a master plan is the perfect solution to everything.”

Attorney Theodore J. Novak, senior partner with Piper Marbury Rudnick & Wolfe, agreed with both developers. “It is my belief that you can’t plan against the market,” Novak says. “You can’t plan for what the market won’t do.”

Novak says he tells clients seeking zoning changes that they cannot rely on either the city’s master plan or its zoning ordinance, which is seemingly always negotiable, though not to many developer’s preferences. “Then I tell them about their vested rights, and then I tell them about the tradition of aldermanic prerogative,” he adds.

The city’s 50 aldermen have nearly ironclad control over zoning matters in their wards. In 14th Ward Alderman Edward M. Burke’s 32 years in the council, he has seen just one case where the alderman’s wishes – in that case opposition to the Eugenie Terrace condominium project in Lincoln Park – was overridden by his counterparts.

Conceding there was zoning-related city council corruption in his early days as an alderman, Burke says the prerogative has evolved into a check-and-balance system that gives local community groups a say in developments in their wards.

“The local alderman has to respond to the wishes of his constituents,” Burke says. “Citizen input is a hallmark of the process.”

Developers now routinely work on selling various community groups first, Burke notes. “Or else (development) won’t get done,” he adds.

Negotiable zoning has evolved into special use permits and planned unit developments, producing common scenarios where developers “first show an ugly monolith” to department of planning and development staffers before eventually unveiling what they are willing to build, says John F.McCarron, former Chicago Tribune urban affairs reporter and now vice president for strategy and communication for the Metropolitan Planning Council.

“The next (zoning) ordinance will succeed if it has that flexibility,” McCarron adds. “I think there was too much master planning that got the ’57 zoning ordinance in trouble.”

The 1957 ordinance, McCarron explains, resulted in strict segregation of land uses “that looks backwards to the days of street cars, lunch boxes and stay-at-home moms.”

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