There’s a new McMansion up at 1806 N. Wood. A hulking pile of concrete-colored blocks towering over neighboring homes to the south and north, it was built after 32nd Ward alderman Ted Matlak ushered a zoning change through the City Council allowing the developer, Prime Property, to construct a wider, taller home than the lot’s previous zoning permitted.

The alderman’s handling of zoning has been the lead topic in local debates and forums as Matlak, running for his third term, faces stiff competition from attorneys Catherine Zaryczny and Scott Waguespack. All candidates agree that, for better or worse, Matlak has dramatically altered development in the 32nd Ward over the last few years. The full City Council must approve any zoning change, but by long tradition and with few exceptions it follows the lead of the local guy.

By his own admission, Matlak supports almost every zoning change that crosses his desk. He estimates that over the last four years he’s approved more than 300 zoning requests in his ward, which includes parts of Bucktown, Lakeview, Lincoln Park, and Wicker Park. “I’ve brought the zoning into the 21st century,” he says. “I’m meeting the needs of people.”

Most of his zoning changes, like the one at 1806 N. Wood, fall into the category of what planners and preservationists call spot zoning. “Spot zoning is when you cherry-pick a single lot in a consistently zoned area and say, ‘I’m going to wave my magic wand and change the zoning of this one lot,'” says Jonathan Fine, spokesman for Preservation Chicago, an architectural watchdog group. “You have one lot zoned one way in the midst of a whole block zoned as something else. Inevitably that means you wind up with a building that’s completely out of scale with the buildings all around it.”

Fine says that while individual spot-zoning changes may seem relatively minor, they have a cumulative effect as teardowns and buildups spread from one block to the next. Ultimately, he argues, this perverts the purpose of zoning: “The zoning ordinance is created to make sure that buildings be in character with the density and use and scale of neighboring buildings,” he says. “Why have zoning at all if you’re going to break it up with spot zoning?”

There is, of course, a compelling reason to seek a zoning change–money. The tighter the zoning restrictions on a property, the fewer units or buildings you can construct on it. Convince your alderman to upzone and you can raise your property’s value with more units or buildings.

That’s why some residents tend to be ambivalent about the issue. When their neighbors are selling, they clamor for rigidly enforced zoning laws. But when their own houses go on the market, many are transformed into antizoning libertarians, eager to make as much money as they can off the sale.

The 32nd Ward abounds with examples of zoning’s impact on the market. For instance, a developer named Keith Esses bought Betty’s Resale Shop, an eyesore at 3435-45 N. Lincoln, for $990,000 in 2000. On November 5, 2003, it was rezoned, allowing Esses to replace the building with a 12-unit condo complex. Units fetched prices up to $400,000. In July 2004 residential developer Cronin-Dekker bought a small two-story house at 1801 N. Hermitage for $665,000. On June 11, 2005, the City Council approved rezoning the property from RS to RT4, and Cronin-Dekker built a four-story behemoth that dwarfs the surrounding cottages; it’s listed at $2.8 million.

Then there’s the well-publicized case of the Victorian mansion at 1734 W. Wabansia, which used to house the Artful Dodger tavern. In May 2005 developer Walter Kos bought it for $1,060,000. The City Council upzoned the property on August 30, 2005, enabling him to build a huge house that fills the lot. Kos says he intends to live there, but the property would probably go for over $2 million if he decided to sell.

Matlak’s opponents Waguespack and Zaryczny say they’re outraged by the overall pattern of development in the ward. They charge that Matlak doesn’t hold enough public hearings, frequently approving zoning changes without input from the locals, as was the case with the Artful Dodger. They each vow to conduct regular public meetings in which zoning requests come before a local zoning committee, whose decision will be binding.

“I think when you’re basically carpet bombing the ward with spot zoning you’re throwing your whole zoning map out of whack,” says Waguespack. “It’s out of control.”

Hanging over the debate is the matter of campaign contributions. Waguespack and Zaryczny accuse Matlak of being too cozy with developers. They note that he’s received contributions from many applicants seeking zoning changes. Prime Property gave him around $2,000 in 2005; Esses, Kos, and Cronin-Dekker have also been large donors. (Since identities are often concealed in land trusts and limited partnerships, it’s difficult to determine exactly how much Matlak has received from zoning applicants.)

But Matlak says he’s not influenced by donors–he’s not even aware which applicants have given him money. “I don’t call anybody for campaign contributions,” he says. “I don’t look at that stuff. It has no effect on me at all. I will stand by any zoning change.”

In many cases, he says, he supports upzoning simply because ordinary constituents want it. “I’ve seen a lot of buildings built years ago and when people had a second child they wanted a change to build another room,” he says. “So I give them a change. What’s wrong with that?”

It’s a fair question, and one the voters will eventually answer with their ballots. Will Matlak win? In 2003 he was able to use his overwhelming advantages in money and manpower to roll over challenger Jay Stone, who raised many of the same objections about developers, contributions, and spot zoning the alderman’s current opponents have.

But Matlak may not have it so easy this time around. Judging from the neighborhood forums, a backlash seems to be growing, one not unlike the movements that swept aldermen Jesse Granato and Vilma Colom from office in the nearby First and 35th wards four years ago. This election will be a referendum on recent development: the evidence of Matlak’s zoning policies is impossible to ignore.

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Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea.