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Reforming the development process through Cut the Tape

co-authored by Alec Singer, MPC Manager

A focus on zoning and permitting 

On April 5, the City released its Cut the Tape report that lists 10 “Big Bets” and 107 individual recommendations to help the city “build faster, build everywhere, and build together,” and ultimately catalyze more affordable housing and vibrant commercial corridors.  

MPC is supportive of this initiative’s focus on making changes to our fragmented development system by addressing process and practice challenges that impede development. Through our Zoning Assessment project, which focuses on understanding zoning impacts, as well as our work on the We Rise Together initiative , which provides assistance to help BIPOC-led small businesses open, MPC has learned that there needs to be both short- and long-term solutions to ensure that development in Chicago is streamlined, efficient, and centers equity. Many of the City’s broad recommendations match our findings for what needs to be fixed based on our analysis of the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) and building permitting process. 

What we liked on zoning (specific to ZBA) 

Several Cut the Tape recommendations—including #3 of the 10 “Big Bets”—target the role of the ZBA, which has the power to allow certain exceptions to baseline zoning for residential and commercial development. Through MPC’s analysis, a clear theme emerged, aligning with the priorities in the report: there’s an opportunity to update the ZBA to better fit the City’s needs and save both applicants and the City significant time and money. 

The ZBA receives applications for—special uses, which are defined for each district in the zoning code, variations from bulk and density limits, and appeals of decisions made by the Zoning Administrator. The ZBA approves most of its cases (more than 9 out of 10), via a public hearing with nearly unanimous votes. Which developments truly need a public hearing and increased scrutiny, and which could instead be allowed by-right, or handled administratively? Cut the Tape provides recommendations that are supported by MPC’s findings.  

What could be improved on zoning (specific to ZBA) 

Cut the Tape pushes the ZBA to increase transparency in advance of public hearings by releasing Department of Planning and Development’s recommendations and application materials. MPC is supportive of this recommendation and believes there is an opportunity for a more holistic view of transparency and engagement.  

First, the ZBA can rethink the format of the information it releases to the public by standardizing and releasing information in a more user-friendly format than lengthy PDF documents. This would aid in having real-time data to guide future reforms.  

Secondly, the process for ZBA public engagement can be redesigned. The conditions of ZBA public hearings make public input logistically difficult. The in-person meetings can last more than twelve hours, and it is unclear when any specific case at each hearing will be heard. The weight given to public comment on decisions is also unknown. MPC’s research scan on equitable public engagement could be a starting point for building out stronger practices that add up to meaningful public input where it is needed. 

What we liked on permitting 

Beyond zoning, Cut the Tape also echoes MPC research has undertaken around the building permitting process.  MPC’s analysis determined that “Time to Permit” increased nearly 40% from 2015 to 2023, from 68 days to 96. These increases were largely driven by “Time with Applicant”, which increased by 57% during this time, compared to a 22% increase in “Time with City”. While some of this increase may reflect the challenging financing environment, participants in the We Rise Together initiative indicated significant challenges understanding and meeting City requirements. To tackle permitting inefficiencies, Cut the Tape includes multiple remedies. 

What could be improved on permitting 

The City should take further steps to improve internal data so that it can provide a new lens on neighborhood investment and change. Improvements to the business permitting process should be accompanied by improvements in the way the City categorizes businesses, allowing the City and community organizations to better understand neighborhood economies and gaps in local retail, particularly around food access. One consistent challenge in planning and economic development is the availability of highly local, neighborhood data. By looking at permitting data as a source of neighborhood information, the City can better understand how and where neighborhood investment initiatives are working.  

Secondly, Cut the Tape does not directly address inconsistent management and categorization of permit application data, although one third of the plan’s “Outputs” are dependent on this information. The resulting inaccuracies and inability to compare over time diminishes the value of this data as a benchmark for performance improvement. While rectifying this in historical data will be challenging, the City can take this opportunity to establish consistent data management practices moving forward. 

Greater focus on technology overall to move in the right direction 

Broadly, MPC supports Cut the Tape’s focus on technology, but encourages the City to examine and invest in technology holistically in tandem with the Chicago Taskforce on Innovation and Technology. The City would benefit from assessing its technology comprehensively and creating unified tools which enable collaboration across departments and provide transparency for applicants and the public for both zoning and permitting processes. Starting points for this work were established across the report’s 11 data-related recommendations, but it is important that these are seen as initial key considerations, not a complete scope.  

MPC believes Cut the Tape has the ability to deliver on true reform and has appreciated the opportunity to engage in the effort as part of the initiative’s focus groups and by providing what we have learned about zoning and permitting through our analysis to the City. We look forward to the initiative’s next phase as the recommendations advance and move toward implementation.