Does aldermanic prerogative undermine Chicago’s Pedestrian Street ordinance?

City-installed bike parking and business-installed bike parkingEd. note: This post was written by Steven Vance and Christopher Gagnon, a Logan Square resident.

“So who is the amazing architect who designed the new McDonalds…with a utility door facing Milwaukee Ave.?  Is there some sort of safety reason for an ugly utility door being placed at that spot, in the front of the restaurant??”

Good question. This message, posted December 6 to the Logan Square Yahoo! Group, a neighborhood online discussion board, can be read as more than a criticism of the architecture of the newly rebuilt McDonald’s at 2707 N Milwaukee Avenue, as it recalls a controversial decision – and some unfinished business – for Logan Square pedestrians.

For those unfamiliar with the issue, a quick primer:

Chicago’s City Council established the “Pedestrian Streets” (“P-Streets”) ordinance to “preserve and enhance the character of…pedestrian oriented shopping districts…[and] to promote transit, economic vitality and pedestrian safety and comfort,” and this designation was applied, among other locations citywide, to Milwaukee Avenue between Kedzie and Sawyer.

When the owners of the McDonald’s located within this area decided to build a new store at their existing location, they turned to Alderman Colón for relief from restrictions imposed by the P-Street designation that would have prohibited their drive-thru operation.  In November 2011, Alderman Colón introduced a controversial ordinance (adopted June 2012) removing the area from the list of P-Streets so McDonald’s owners could obtain the necessary permits for the curb cuts and drive-thru.

In response to an inquiry from BikeWalk Logan Square, a neighborhood bike and pedestrian advocacy group, Colón asserted that removing the P-Street was “the only option” for Logan Square to keep the McDonald’s, and was undertaken ostensibly only to allow McDonald’s to keep its curb cuts and drive-thru operations. Think of it as a de facto “grandfathering” arrangement: the old McDonald’s had a drive-thru, and the new one would too, P-Street notwithstanding.  According to Colón, after the permits were issued, the P-Street would be reinstated.

Unfortunately, the new McDonald’s falls short of a P-Street in more ways than just preserving existing curb cuts and drive-thru. The new project also included a different drive-thru configuration that added a second order point, a move to increase customer throughput that outraged neighborhood pedestrian advocates, who expressed concerns that the increased traffic would also increase the potential for pedestrian-motorist conflicts.  McDonald’s was also able to gain approval for a site and building plan that skirted other P-Street requirements (discussed below).

The new McDonald’s opened December 8, 2012, and a year after the process to remove the P-Street designation began, this location remains excluded; the protections provided by this special zoning code appear to be theoretical at best.

In a December 3, 2012 email, BikeWalk Logan Square asked Alderman Colón when he expected to return this location to the list of P-Streets, but received no response. Steven eventually reached Colón’s office on January 10, and the alderman’s Chief of Staff provided an update: an ordinance restoring this location as a P-Street is scheduled for introduction to city council after the City Council Legislative Review Bureau finishes its review of the text. It could be introduced at the January 17 meeting. After referral to the Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards, the council could consider the new ordinance for adoption in February.

Six problems with the new McDonald’s development

P-Street requirements would have applied only to the Milwaukee Avenue façade of the new McDonald’s.  Aside from the drive-thru/curb cut permit issue, the new McDonald’s would have shirked other P-Street requirements, had they remained in place, including:

1)  Building Location: The façade must “…abut the sidewalk or be located within 5 feet of the sidewalk.” The new façade is more than 7 feet from the sidewalk.

2)  Transparency: “A minimum of 60% of the street-facing building façade between 4 feet and 10 feet in height must be comprised of [sic] clear, non-reflective windows that allow views of indoor commercial space or product display areas. This standard applies to building façades that face pedestrian streets.” The new façade, according to our measurements and calculations, comprises just 42% clear, non-reflective windows (plus one door), with the balance comprising solid masonry and the aforementioned windowless metal utility door.

3)  Doors and Entrances: “On lots abutting pedestrian streets, buildings must have a primary [emphasis added] entrance door facing the pedestrian street.”  The new building has its primary entrance on Sawyer Avenue, with just a single, secondary entrance on Milwaukee Avenue.

(As an aside, while the ordinance doesn’t prohibit the installation of a windowless metal utility door in the façade, as the Logan Square Group member’s comment above suggests, the inclusion of such a door seems incongruent with the spirit of the P-Street.)

The main entrance was placed on a side streetThe main entrance to the building was placed on Sawyer Avenue. 

4)  Parking: “All off-street parking spaces must be enclosed or located to the rear of the principal building and not be visible from the right-of-way of a pedestrian street.”  The majority of the parking lot at the new McDonald’s is located beside the building, on Milwaukee Avenue, rather than at its rear, and is plainly visible to pedestrians on Milwaukee Avenue.

To its credit, the McDonald’s appears to have attempted to honor the bicycle parking requirements of Chicago’s zoning code. However, the design of the fixtures and location of the bike parking, behind the building, is inconsistent with current CDOT (and nationally accepted) bicycle parking design standards.  While CDOT likely reviewed and approved the project, the bike parking plan was never reviewed by CDOT’s Bicycle Parking Program. [Disclosure: coauthor Christopher Gagnon served as CDOT’s Bicycle Parking Program Manager during this period.]

5)  Driveways and Vehicle Access: “Vehicle access to lots located along pedestrian streets must come from an alley. No curb cuts or driveways are allowed from a pedestrian street.”  Because this project required the demolition of the existing building, and construction of a new one, the owners had no entitlement under the P-Street to retain the existing curb cuts providing access to the parking lot and drive-thru. Therefore, removing this location from the P-Street provided the only mechanism for McDonald’s to include a curb cut – new or existing – on Milwaukee Avenue.

And of course, the requirement that started it all:

6)  Prohibited Uses: “…drive-through facilities;”

Could it have been done better?

You might think, “too late, it’s a done deal.”  Perhaps so.  But something very important remains to be done: reinstating this location in the P-Street ordinance. Colón’s chief of staff assured us that no other permits were issued in the area in question while the P-Street designation was lifted.

To be clear: the McDonald’s owners didn’t precisely do anything “wrong.”  The alderman arranged the lifting of P-Street restrictions, and as a result, the new McDonald’s had no duty to comply with them–and it doesn’t, in many regards.

Here are some suggestions on how the McDonald’s owner could have designed a store that wouldn’t have required the removal of P-Street restrictions for this location, and which would better integrate with the neighborhood’s pedestrian- and transit-friendly characteristics and the surrounding architecture.

Even without a P-Street designation, McDonald’s’ owners could have voluntarily implemented the following improvements:

    • Placed the bike parking near the entrance instead of at the back of the building.


    • Placed the primary entrance at the corner, respecting both Milwaukee and Sawyer Avenues equally (like the McDonald’s at Fullerton, Halsted, Lincoln).


    • Built a mixed use multi-story building, like the buildings surrounding it, and several of the multi-story, mixed use McDonald’s stores in Chicago’s Loop and at Fullerton, Halsted, Lincoln.


    • Abutted the sidewalk edge and neighboring buildings (typically known as “zero setback”).


    • Placed the building’s actual primary façade, which now faces Sawyer Avenue (not part of the P-Street area) and primary entrance on Milwaukee Avenue.


  • Placed both the drive-thru entrance and exit on Sawyer, and where there are fewer pedestrians to experience conflicts with motorists breaching the sidewalk.

What to take away from this

Given the controversy surrounding the alderman’s decision, and the importance of preserving the pedestrian character of this stretch of Milwaukee Avenue, what should the community expect from its corporate neighbors–particularly those seeking favors and special access from our elected leaders? Is it sufficient to do only what is required by the letter of the law, or should we expect them to do better, to do more, in exchange for this privilege?  And what should we expect from aldermen who grant these special privileges?  Should the alderman get something better for the community in return?

McDonald’s could have enjoyed the benefit of the special privileges they were granted, keeping their curb cuts and drive-thru, while still respecting the spirit of the P-Street. Instead, it seems they took full advantage of the temporary elimination of the P-Street designation to build what they wanted, seemingly without regard for the expressed needs and desires of the community from which they profit.

Unfortunately, piecemeal tinkering with the zoning code to facilitate pet projects is a favorite pastime for many Chicago aldermen.  It’s difficult to avoid the question: what is the value of the P-Street ordinance, when aldermen can easily disable it at will?

There are two new discussions on EveryBlock that started from this article:

Updated 17:29 to correct a paragraph’s ambiguity about dates (“opened December 8…”). Updated Jan 14, 15:09 to add links to EveryBlock. 

28 thoughts on “Does aldermanic prerogative undermine Chicago’s Pedestrian Street ordinance?”

  1. So we are essentially setting the precedent that if a business complains enough, they can get the zoning changed in their favor?

    1. Either complains enough, or donates enough money.

      The campaign contributions come from the following:

      * V. Oviedo, $500 in 2008,
      * V. Oviedo INC. McDonald’s # 2367, $3,000 total in 2004 and 2009,'s_#_2367
      * Midan Inc., $1,000 in 2011,
      * Midan Inc., $1,000 in 2007,
      * Midan Inc., $1,000 in 2003,
      * Total: $6,500

      This amount puts Virginia Oviedo, franchise owner, and her associated companies up there with SEIU, AFSCME, and Primera Engineering/Construction Management in the quantity of money donated.

          1. This “that just the way it is” attitude held by citizens is partly to blame. Let’s agree to act / kick butt.

          2. Just don’t include the posters in the LoganSquare message board. They seem to exhibit child-like behavior in their commentary of various issues across the internet.

            Aw shucks, it’s only the internet.

      1. It’s a flaw of the system, and gets back to the money should not be free speech, and corporations shouldn’t be able to lobby/donate money in the first place.

        It’s not hard to surmise why politicians are susceptible – campaigns are expensive. I’m not aware of any political parties are candidates that don’t solicit contributions. To win you need staff, office space, signs, websites, etc., etc. Volunteers are critical, but without full time people coordinating, forget about it.

        35th ward residents who don’t want this kind of activity could donate a few bucks each, bundle it, and donate it if they want to get their voice heard on a level with Fortune 500 companies. $6500 over almost a decade seems like chump change, IMO.

  2. This sucks all around. What’s the point of zoning restriction if they aren’t actually restrictions (read: circumvented by political pleading)?

  3. Aldermanic prerogative undermines just about everything in the City of Chicago. I’ve always liked Colon, but this is unacceptable. I suggest voting him out.

  4. What is that door even for? Does their delivery truck park on Milwaukee and go in that way? Or worse, is that the only utility door and they take the trash out that way too?

    1. I haven’t seen what it’s used for. It may be an emergency exit door. It’s funny, though, because the bike rack was there before the new building was constructed and the bike rack is directly in the shortest path between the door and the road.

    2. It could be required by code or may be just a holdover from McD’s boiler plate building design. May be worth a call to the city’s plans examiner who approved the plans.

  5. I read somewhere that the aldermanic system and hyperlocal control/corruption was one way that Chicago avoided becoming Detroit (massive population loss, collapse of industry, massive tracts of blight). A more democratic and fair citywide system is just as open to corruption. See parking meter deal, parking garage deal, upcoming Midway deal, NATO boondoggle, Block 37, etcetera. A fair citywide government program can easily become a centralized citywide scam that has the chance to completely abandon entire swaths of the city’s people.

    Chicago’s decentralized ward system means every neighborhood will see some money, even if it is spent unwisely or flat stolen. While far from ideal some circulation of money is better than none at all. If cities were bodies, Chicago’s model gives you see sick tissue all over vs. Detroit’s model giving you dead tissue. I’m not defending aldermanic corruption and Chicago’s broken system – only highlighting that things can always be worse.

    1. I don’t think anyone needs a reminder that things can always be worse.

      A reminder that things can always be better, which is equally possible as things can always be worse, is more useful. What’s more difficult is imagining, discussing, and knowing what those better things are.

  6. While I agree the utility door is an eyesore, I’m sure there’s a functional aspect that required it to be there. From my view, this is a much more compact McDonald’s than is standard for its stand-alone restaurants. And it’s much better looking than the ramshackle building it replaced.

    The bottom line is that this whole situation was a compromise (which most political decision making is). McDonald’s compromised on their standard design, as the Pedestrian District compromised by accommodating an existing business, which would have no doubt been forced to close had it not been allowed some leeway. If this was a whole new development, it would have been a different ballgame.
    Addressing a few of the points in the article—there’s no way the primary facade could have faced Milwaukee and both entrance and exit for the drive-thru been on Sawyer. The drive thru window has to be on the side, next to the front counter, in order for the restaurant to function efficiently and make any money.

    As far as the mixed use multi-story building, in order to justify that for financing, there has to be a market for the mixed use—until the housing market recovers, that won’t be happening. I also would not be surprised if the traffic at this McDonald’s would not warrant the increased expense of housing a restaurant within a larger building—what with venting being required to go all the way up past the roofline.
    So the unfortunate choice was compromise with McDonald’s or be left with an empty building and lot (the corporation has minimum standards for its franchisees). Since Pierre’s Bakery has moved out, we now get to watch the process on that section of Milwaukee. I’d bet that either a car-centric business moves into the existing building, or it sits vacant for years until a compromise or a multi-story mixed use building has a market (and then we’ll all be debating whether we want that many condos on that stretch of Milwaukee).

    1. “As far as the mixed use multi-story building, in order to justify that for financing, there has to be a market for the mixed use—until the housing market recovers, that won’t be happening” — Darrel

      Please a mixed use apartment building would have worked if Mcd’s was amendable but almost without exception these corporate client want stand alone effectively single use structures. And this some 550-600 feet to a Blue Line stop. It is unconscionable that here in Chicago or two-bit alderman and corporate developers can mar the city fabric like this in an area with transit access that 99,99% of the rest of the country does not have. We have to stop this suburbanization of the city,.

  7. As anyone who knows me is aware, I am pretty strongly anti-McDonald’s.

    I don’t like this situation, but Colon was elected to represent everyone in the ward – including those we don’t agree with, who clearly greatly outnumber us on this matter. I’m not aware of a McDonald’s-free ward in Chicago, and I’d bet against any challenger who decided to make that a campaign plank. More likely one will tell you they’ll do it, then when they get in office they’ll realize that it’s not actually their call and that it’s political suicide. McDonald’s probably could have just sued the City to oblivion under some grandfathering clause/concept, or as Darrel pointed out, just let the old building dilapidate forever.

    The problem here is thousands of our fellow neighbors eat at, or at least vaguely approve of in a pro-capitalism sense, McDonald’s. Why that is the case is the war, a single McDonald’s is a battle in that larger struggle. It’s the same problem with WalMart, there are those people who confuse a Platonic concept of “the free market” with the ridiculously stacked deck our society’s economy actually operates with.

    If we want to fix this kind of problem, thinking that a single politician is doing to do it is incorrect – that’s a shortcut to the everyday actions that need to be happening. This battle was lost (although as was pointed out, the fabric here hasn’t really changed, what happened was the status quo stayed put), but the larger issue of health, pedestrian-friendly streets continues on. This is a war for hearts (literally, in the healthy sense) and minds (preferably not hopped up on subsidized HFCS).

    I would request folks get on Everyblock and other social media and engage the public, as we know they can’t defend the agricultural subsidies, the cost to society as our diabetes/obesity rates skyrocket, the mountains and mountains and mountains of trash, the destruction of the small family farm, the poisoning of the soil, the Mississippi river, the Gulf of Mexico by extension etc.

    It can be done – the Field Museum’s McDonald’s, open since the mid-80s, is going the way of the dinosaur come the end of the year. It took years for this to happen, a bulletproof plan that passed both economic and our educational culture metrics, staff building bridges and a network, people willing to risk their jobs, and constant, constant vigilance. And a petition spearheaded by yours truly, which we got over 50% of the staff to sign.

    The underlying problem in our society is corporate personhood. Corporations enjoying the constitutional rights (generously interpreted by a pro-corporate Supreme Court) of individuals is the grease that keeps the wheels of economic and social injustice moving.

  8. The Chicago Tribune had a good piece on this about a year ago. Strong link between favorable aldermanic-driven zoning decisions and immediate, almost next-day campaign contributions from developers. Save your breathe complaining about poor design as long zoning decisions are deferred to alderman politicians.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *