When Robert Shaw–alderman of the Ninth Ward–rises to speak, most of the wise guys in the City Hall pressroom put aside their pencils and just listen.

It’s not that Shaw is particularly erudite, even by the standards of the City Council. But there’s no denying the man is downright entertaining.

“He’s a self-contained Barnum and Bailey operation; a one-man circus,” says one City Hall aide, who fancies himself an admirer and a student of what he calls the “Shavian intellect.” “Even if you can’t understand Shaw, on a slow news day he gives you great copy.”

Sure enough, many of Shaw’s zanier antics find their way to the pages of the dailies. There was the time for instance, earlier this year, when he decided that the city’s seal was “racist,” and demanded that it be changed. This enormously expensive proposition was ignored by Mayor Washington and Shaw’s councilmates, as was his previous suggestion that all gas stations in Chicago be required to maintain operating bathrooms. Asked why he would clutter the legislative agenda with such matters, Shaw insisted they were burning issues in his community–a point of view vehemently denied by most Ninth Ward leaders outside the alderman’s organization.

But the big news for residents of Shaw’s far-south-side ward took place out of the glare of TV lights, when few if any were listening. Over the last year, Shaw has quietly taken advantage of City Council rules that allow an alderman almost dictatorial control of zoning in his ward. Shaw has steered through the council a series of ordinances that down-zone from commercial to residential at least six sites between 105th and 115th streets on South Michigan Avenue.

On the face of it, the zoning changes–adopted by the City Council with approval from the Planning Department–make no sense at all. South Michigan Avenue, a stretch of storefronts and strip malls, is not a residential area, but the prime business district in Roseland, the heart of Shaw’s ward.

No group in the community appears to have requested the zoning changes. Shaw did not publicize his efforts (he has ignored repeated requests to discuss them for this article). Indeed, most property owners there may not even know that their zoning has been changed.

Though Shaw’s actions are hard to figure, their effects are fairly apparent: the new zoning classifications could make life very complicated for some commercial-property owners in the area. It directly affects their ability to expand, renovate, or even continue operating their businesses. Those in a bind have two options: they can seek a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals–special permission to operate despite their residential zoning–or they can ask the City Council to rezone their property back to commercial. Neither action legally requires the alderman’s consent, but it’s very unusual for the ZBA or the council to oppose an alderman on a local zoning issue. In effect, any business owner who wants to develop or buy one of these properties needs Shaw’s approval.

“These zoning changes put Shaw in control; now he can say: ‘You want to do business in Roseland? You’ve got to come to me,'” says Salim Al Nurridin, a political rival of Shaw and the executive director of the Roseland Community Development Corporation, a local social service group. “It’s hard to talk about without making people in Roseland look like a joke. Believe me, it’s not funny to people down here at all. What this community needs is order and logic to develop the business strip. What we’re getting is chaos. Shaw never told anybody about these changes.”

It is not the first time an alderman has down-zoned significant chunks of his ward; by council standards it’s not even a major down-zoning effort. For years, north-side aldermen such as Burton Natarus and Martin Oberman have down-zoned property to curb development that might litter the lakefront landscape with more ugly, traffic-clogging high rises.

The council’s king of down-zoning, by almost all estimations, is Alderman John Madrzyk (13th). Over the course of about six years, Madrzyk down-zoned virtually every piece of commercial property along business strips in his far-southwest-side ward, despite wails of outrage from local businessmen. His purpose, Madrzyk maintained, was to halt the spread of adult bookstores. Others questioned the purity of his motives.

“What this down-zoning means is that we have to kiss Madrzyk’s ass if we want to operate in his ward,” Donald Vetsch, a businessman in the community, told the Chicago Reporter in a 1984 article on the matter. “It’s all political.”

Of course, politics should not play a role in zoning. The four main zoning categories–residential, business, commercial, and manufacturing–are intended to preserve a proper mix of land use. A factory, for instance, should not be allowed to operate next to a school, just as porno parlors should not do business in a residential neighborhood.

Watching over zoning designations, supposedly with an eye to the city’s best interests, are the aldermen, who work in conjunction with the professionals in the Planning Department.

In reality, the Planning Department pays little if any attention to what aldermen do with most zoning matters, and what little interest they show is generally disregarded by the council. Madrzyk’s down-zoning efforts were approved by both the Planning Department and the City Council, as were Shaw’s. It was only after persistent nagging by Vetsch and his allies that city officials grudgingly acknowledged that “nonconforming” businesses–those whose zoning was changed–stood to suffer some difficulty.

Businesses operating in an area down-zoned to residential do not automatically have to close. But since they are, technically, operating in violation of zoning law, it is questionable whether insurance companies will cover them in the event of storm, fire, or burglary. And it would be difficult for a nonconforming business to obtain a bank loan for expansion or renovation.

In the case of Roseland–which, like many inner-city communities, desperately needs economic investment–any new development along a rezoned section of South Michigan needs a zoning variance. And for that, the developer must get in touch with Shaw.

In Shaw’s defense, his chief opponent on this matter, Al Nurridin, has a political interest in raising the issue. He ran and lost to William Shaw, the alderman’s twin brother, in February’s Democratic committeeman election. And there is speculation in the ward that Al Nurridin may challenge Shaw in the 1991 aldermanic election.

Certainly, there has been no ground swell of opposition to the zoning changes in Roseland–at least not on the scale that confronted Madrzyk. The city sent letters to property owners in the immediate area notifying them of Shaws proposal–as is required by law. About six residents showed up at a council hearing and opposed the zoning changes (including members of the Chicago Roseland Coalition for Community Control–the best-known community organization in the area). But there were also about a dozen people who spoke in favor of the new zoning.

“Generally, the council will go with the local alderman on most issues,” says Alderman Danny Davis (29th), chairman of the council’s zoning committee. “In this case, I don’t remember Shaw saying, ‘I’m downzoning for this or that reason.’ He would say, ‘I’m changing the zoning because the community wants it changed.’ And, of course, the committee would not question the veracity of what an alderman says about his community.”

Speaking on a different zoning matter before the council, Shaw recently said: “I’ve used zoning laws to try and control the influence of chemical and toxic waste from industrial plants.” But the properties on South Michigan Avenue are far from the industrial waste zones in or near Shaw’s ward. One site at 109th Street is across the street from the Roseland Christian Ministry Center. Another is between 105th and 107th streets, once the location of an automobile dealership. By far the largest stretch of down-zoned land runs along the west side of South Michigan between 114th and 115th streets and includes a public school, a tire store, and a small strip mall.

“It’s unbelievable to say that he’s down-zoning on Michigan Avenue to stop toxic waste,” says Al Nurridin. “There’s no factories there. What’s more important is that there’s no process to work with the community.”

Some reformers insist the matter speaks to a larger need for zoning reform. To that end, Davis has proposed legislation that would require aldermen to identify who would benefit from any zoning change request.

“Currently an alderman can submit a ordinance or application for zoning change without disclosing the purpose of that change or the beneficiary of that change,” says Davis. “There has been discussion in Chicago about the abuse of zoning, and the potential conflict of interest relative to members of the City Council. I proposed this legislation about six months ago–before the death of Mayor Washington.”

The legislation, backed by Washington, passed Davis’s committee, but ran into a wall of opposition when it recently came before the full council.

“I think disclosure is great,” said Natarus, one of the bill’s main opponents, during council debate. “But what about downzoning for planning purposes? It would be impossible to get 150 to 200 property owners to do it individually.”

“The ordinance is probably well meaning,” Shaw added during the debate. “But at the same time, if we adopt this, we may be throwing the baby out with the bath water. I personally feel that it would be unfair to aldermen to have them or their aides go over to Chicago Title & Trust looking up the owners of this or that property.”

Proponents of the legislation insist Shaw and Natarus have exaggerated its drawbacks. “If it makes zoning changes more difficult to pass, too bad,” says Alderman Edwin Eisendrath (43rd). “Complete disclosure is not that difficult to do. You have to notify property owners anyway. The only difference is the issue of land trusts. Sometimes a property is held in the name of a trust only, and banks are not required to reveal the names behind those trusts. One good lawsuit and the whole thing is over. If a bank refuses to name the trust’s beneficiary, the city will sue, and the city will win.”

Davis brought the legislation back to his committee for study, which gives him time to make changes that might mollify the bill’s opponents. “It’s one of those things where when I first proposed it not too many [aldermen] were really paying attention,” he says. “After conversation started, and reporters started writing about it, they took a closer look. We could have called for a vote, andI think it would have passed. But I think there are better ways to work the legislative process. So it was my decision to call [the bill] back for discussion, and let all members understand what we are trying to do.”

In the meantime, Al Nurridin hopes the matter will become the issue that spurs efforts to either unseat Shaw or at least force the alderman to work with community leaders on a plan that will attract businesses to South Michigan Avenue.

“You can’t sit back and wait for someone to give you the cookies,” says Al Nurridin. “You have to go after businesses; you have to compete in the marketplace. Roseland used to be a community that represented a step up for so many people. I grew up here, and we all used to shop in the Michigan Avenue district. If it’s going to come back, we need good planning, not wheeling and dealing and zoning decisions made in the dark.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.