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Want to live in your storefront? City Council advances proposal

Updated: April 24, 2012 8:15AM

Chicagoans would be free to live and work in the same place — and avoid commuting — thanks to a zoning change advanced Thursday to fill vacant storefronts and return the city to its “roots.”

“It’s how Chicago was built. Family in the back. Store in the front,” said Ald. “Proco” Joe Moreno (1st).

At Moreno’s behest, the City Council’s Zoning Committee approved a zoning change that will allow up to 50 percent of work space in low-intensity business districts to be used for living space.

Chicago’s zoning code currently allows only artists to live in their work space as well as those with home offices.

Moreno predicted that “thousands” of professionals would take advantage of the change, filling scores of vacant storefronts and building the city’s tax base.

“Some of these people [who] are living in lofts and selling everything on the Internet — they’re not paying taxes. It’s gonna bring them out of the shadows,” Moreno said.

“Accountants, doctors, artisans [who] sell designer clothes, shoes — they can now live and work in the same space. … I have many small business people who say, ‘I’d love to have a storefront. I can’t afford my loft apartment and the rental on the storefront.’ Now, they’re gonna be able to combine those.”

In a last-minute concession to concerned colleagues, Moreno agreed that most of the live-work sites would require a special use permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals. That will give neighbors an opportunity to question the applicant and raise objections.

“I wanted it a little bit more open, a little more flexibility. … It’s just another hurdle that people have to go through. But it’s a brand new ordinance. We want to have a little more oversight. Hopefully, down the road, we’re gonna be able to loosen up,” he said.

The change was not enough to satisfy Ald. Tim Cullerton (38th).

A former deputy building commissioner, Cullerton questioned why live-work spaces were being excused from off-street parking requirements and whether the units would comply with ventilation, natural light and occupancy requirements of the city’s building code.

“What if I have 13 kids and I have a 1,200-square-foot storefront? ...There’s a little room here for abuse,” Cullerton said.

Cullerton said his Northwest Side ward is struggling with “hundreds” of illegal conversions that have created attic and basement apartments in single-family homes.

“We can’t get enforcement on those. The Building Department, the Fire Department, the Zoning Department simply do not have the staff or the resources to enforce those provisions that are already in existence,” Cullerton said.

“If we can’t enforce it in single-family homes, how are we gonna enforce this provision and who will enforce it? ... We would see, in the first 12-month period, many thousands of applications for certificates of occupancy. Do you honestly feel that you’re equipped and staffed to inspect those in light of all the other duties you share?”

A Building Department official acknowledged that inundated city inspectors would have to “make some adjustments.”

After a brief recess that allowed aldermen to air their concerns, the Zoning Committee approved the ground-breaking ordinance.

“While we can never ensure safety on every decision that we make or every license that we issue, the positives vastly outweigh some of the concerns. I’m confident we can move this ordinance forward and help fill some of these storefronts in every neighborhood,” said Ald. Tom Tunney (44th).

With Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s support, full City Council approval is virtually guaranteed

The ordinance will confine live-work units to the ground floor and require them to have “pedestrian-oriented frontage, interior views of the commercial space and a clearly-designated business entrance.” They could be no less than 800 square feet or more than 3,000. The residential space would also have to have its own washroom and bathing facilities. They could not be shared with the business.

The commercial space would have to occupy a minimum of one-third of the unit or 400 square feet, whichever is greater.

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