Along the sidewalks of Chicago’s commercial corridors, there are thousands of storefront signs. Some are simple and others are big and flashy, but each and every one needs a permit that must be voted on by all 50 aldermen.
As the city moves to reopen on Friday and recover from the pandemic, Mayor Lori Lightfoot wants to make it quicker and easier for businesses to put up storefront signs by cutting the need for City Council to vote on them.
The proposal is just one of dozens of changes she put forward last month, but it’s an old idea.
Elliot Richardson, co-founder and president of the Small Business Advocacy Council, has been advocating for years to cut red tape when it comes to sign permits. He actually wrote a memo to the mayor right before she took office with the suggestion. It was one of hundreds of transition memos Lightfoot received.
“We’ve all walked down the sidewalk, looked at a sidewalk sign and been like, ‘Wow, I can get two cups of coffee for the price of one. Sounds good to me!’ ” Richardson said while walking along Milwaukee Avenue on a recent hot June day.
Right now, getting any kind of storefront sign — awnings, block letters, big marquees, or even just a framed poster — requires a “public way use permit,” which is also required for things like sidewalk cafes. The permits cost money — and require an application, a review by city officials, a signature from the local aldermen and, finally, a vote from the other 49 aldermen. Lightfoot’s administration said the whole process can take up to five months.
“It just sounds so ridiculous, right?” Richardson said.
While the mayor says she’s aiming to speed the process by removing the full council vote, some aldermen are suspicious that it is yet another attempt by Lightfoot to end the unwritten practice known as aldermanic prerogative. That gives local aldermen power and final say over decisions in their wards, particularly related to development and zoning.
“We’ve seen a number of instances, since taking office, of the mayor working her way around to try to exert mayoral prerogative, which I would argue is worse than aldermanic prerogative,” said Ald. Andre Vasquez, 40th Ward.
Like Lightfoot, Vasquez is in his first term and ran on a platform of reforming how city government works. He unseated long-time incumbent Patrick O’Connor, who served as former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s floor leader, guiding legislation that the former mayor wanted.
Vasquez said he, too, wants to make it easy and quick for businesses to advertise themselves. And he’s equally critical of the abuse of aldermanic prerogative. But he also doesn’t think that power should be concentrated on the 5th floor.
He is concerned Lightfoot is “trying to undermine the co-equal branch of government” that is City Council.
Carlos Ramirez-Rosa is in his second term in office and, like Vasquez, is a democratic socialist. He argues that aldermanic prerogative might have a reputation as being a relic of the old pay-to-play Chicago machine, but many aldermen use it to give the community a bigger say over what happens in the neighborhood.
“The current process allows aldermen, such as myself, to have a point of leverage with local businesses,” Ramirez-Rosa said. He said when a business wants a public way use permit, his staff will check 311 complaints, emails and calls to make sure that business has been a good neighbor. He said the process has gotten a lot faster since he took office in 2015.
“No business, to my knowledge, is ticketed while they wait for that [City Council vote],” Ramirez Rosa said, calling Lightfoot’s proposal “a solution in search of a problem.”
Last year, 475 citations were issued to businesses found to be violating the public way use laws, including having illegal signs. The majority were during the first few months of the year before the pandemic hit, according to a spokesperson for the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection.
Under Lightfoot’s proposed changes to public way use permits, the local aldermen would still have to sign off on every application in their ward and would be able to deny permits.
“They know their streets better than any of us,” said Rosa Escareno, Commissioner of the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection.
As the proposed change is currently written, the aldermen would have 30 days to approve, deny or request an extension. After that, the department would confirm the decision and issue the permit. The requirement to have the rest of City Council vote on the request would be removed.
The City Council already temporarily agreed to this during the pandemic for sidewalk cafes. Escareno said it’s been working well and aldermen have generally had no issues.
“This is not, for us, about aldermanic control or about city control,” Escareno said. “This is about supporting businesses at the most dire time of our recent history.”
Every year, the city says it issues about 5,000 public way use permits, which includes signs, awnings and sidewalk cafes. In 2020, the number dropped to 3,394. Permits are good for five years.
Ald. Gilbert Villegas, 36th Ward, agrees. He chairs the Committee on Economic, Capital, and Technology Development and has pushed to modernize a lot of city systems, including permitting.
“I’m definitely happy to hear that the administration is talking about expediting things, because I would agree that it does take a long time to do business with the City of Chicago,” he said.
But Villegas is worried this proposal to make it easier to get a simple storefront sign might not get support because it’s tucked into a big, broad package of reforms.
“There’s a lot of things in there,” he said. “It’s just, in my opinion, too big of a bill.”
Another change in the package that is drawing eyebrows from aldermen and city residents is a push to impose a permanent 10 p.m. liquor curfew for all stores that sell booze. Villegas said Lightfoot may not have the votes to pass such a sweeping set of changes. He recently stepped aside as the mayor’s floor leader, helping whip votes for her budget and other proposals.
“Had there been trust, I think this would have been something that the alderman would really consider,” Villegas said. “But because it’s just viewed as chipping away at aldermanic prerogative, I think that’s where you’re getting some of the pushback from some of my colleagues.”
Back on Milwaukee Avenue, Elliot Richardson hopes city officials will save the fight over prerogative for some other issue. He worries about the future of Chicago’s commercial corridors post-pandemic.
“If you’re a business owner and you’re thinking, ‘Man, should I take a chance on a commercial corridor right now? Should I open up a storefront?’ ” he said, pointing to an empty storefront. “And then you know you’re going to have the entire City Council approve your sign permit and it may take months, you may just decide it isn’t worth it.”
While City Council still needs to vote on Lightfoot’s plan, Richardson said he looks forward to seeing more businesses — and their signs — popping up as Chicago recovers from the pandemic.
Becky Vevea covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her @beckyvevea.