Sunday, August 24, 2008

GREAT MOMENTS IN CHICAGO POLITICS

From a great five part series by the Chicago Tribune

Chicago Tribune - Friends of Mayor Richard Daley made out handsomely when land they owned was rezoned in the 11th Ward, helping them sell the property for about $2.4 million more than they paid for it. A critic of the Daley administration didn't do so well, however. He couldn't get a zoning change, and the value of his property diminished by about $4 million, according to court papers.

Both decisions were made by a Daley ally -- James Balcer, the 11th Ward alderman who calls the shots on zoning in his South Side ward.

Zoning is one of the last bastions of power left for Chicago aldermen, who have been marginalized under Daley's control. The Tribune has shown that many of Chicago's 50 aldermen rely on campaign contributions from developers whose projects, in turn, depend on zoning changes.

In the 11th Ward, the ancestral home and power base of the Daley clan, Balcer enjoys so much support from the Daleys that he is the only alderman who doesn't have to raise campaign funds. . .

The Archer Avenue deal began in March 2002, when Richard Ferro, a political supporter of Daley, bought the property for $325,000. He and his business partner, Thomas DiPiazza, also a Daley contributor, later applied to City Hall to rezone the land for town homes.

DiPiazza and Ferro hired Jack George of Daley & George, the law firm of the mayor's brother Michael. In the last five years, Daley & George has handled 60 rezoning applications -- half of all the applications in the ward that weren't filed by Balcer himself, city records show.. . .

Like other zoning changes blessed by aldermen, the request sailed through the City Council.

Landowners who don't have an alderman's support rarely bother to seek a zoning change from the city, knowing it has no chance of being approved.

After Ferro and DiPiazza got their zoning change, they did not develop the land. They sold it.

But before they did, two well-known names were added to the deed as owners on June 18, 2004. One was Timothy Degnan, a political adviser to the mayor. The other was Fred Barbara, a friend of Daley's and a former city waste hauler.

Less than a week later, the land was sold for $2.7 million to another developer who built the town homes.

That sale price was about $2.4 million more than what the Ferro group had originally paid for the land. Before the property was sold, however, the group demolished an old building and cleaned up contaminated soil. That work would likely cost about $300,000, according to public records and estimates from three environmental consultants contacted by the Tribune.

Michael Kralovec, a lawyer for DiPiazza and Ferro, said the group had additional costs and the profit was less than the $2 million suggested by the Tribune's estimates. He did not respond to a request to provide the bills.

Degnan declined to comment for this article, and Barbara could not be reached.

Chicago Tribune - An unprecedented Tribune investigation, including an analysis of 5,700 zoning changes over the last 10 years, found city neighborhoods being remade by a development boom greased by millions of dollars in political donations to aldermen.

As neighborhoods are transformed, advisory groups frequently offer no more than the illusion of community input. But the political cover they provide for aldermen is very real.

Even Ald. William J.P. Banks (36th), the longtime chairman of the City Council's Zoning Committee, doubts that recommendations from committees created by aldermen represent true community sentiment. Banks estimates that about half of the city's 50 aldermen appoint their own advisory panels.

"Any alderman can create a committee and make them do what you want them to do, or the applicants [for zoning changes] can stack the committee," Banks said.

In zoning matters, the City Council's unwritten rule is that aldermen retain ultimate say over what gets built in their wards.

Developers seeking valuable zoning changes that allow them to build bigger and taller projects often donate to the campaigns of aldermen. The city's ethics ordinance limits the size of campaign donations to aldermen from people seeking zoning changes, but the provision doesn't prevent aldermen from receiving additional donations from companies with ties to those same applicants.

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