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Chicago’s new Business Live-Work Ordinance

Will the policy make it easier for artists to live and work in Chicago?

Photograph: Dijanic Kadic
Pictured right, Lynn Basa, with her tennants outside one of her storefront studios.

Caroline Picard had had enough. In 2009, after running the Green Lantern Gallery for four years, she called it quits. Picard could no longer afford the fines levied by the city for operating a gallery out of her 1,500-square-foot Wicker Park apartment without the proper license—despite working with city officials to operate the nonprofit art space legally. “I learned a lot about the bureaucratic process,” Picard says.

Apartment galleries are not uncommon in Chicago, especially among younger artists living in neighborhoods like Wicker Park and Pilsen. Many can’t afford to pay separate rents for work and living spaces, so they often combine the two, illegalities aside.

To help address this problem, 1st Ward Ald. Proco “Joe” Moreno—whose district includes large parts of Logan Square and Wicker Park where many artists live—and 44th Ward Ald. Tom Tunney cosponsored the Business Live-Work Ordinance, which the City Council passed on June 27. The ordinance allows some small-business owners to work and live in the same space under specific conditions.

Carolina Jayaram, executive director of the Chicago Artists’ Coalition, says that “Chicago artists are particularly entrepreneurial, but they often lack knowledge of the city’s legal parameters.” This can spell trouble for those trying to navigate the city’s matrix of zoning codes and building regulations when cobbling together live-work spaces. But the new law clearly lays out what is and isn’t allowable.

The ordinance stipulates “business live/work units must be located on the ground floor level…directly accessible from and oriented towards the street, and the entrance must be clearly designated as a business entrance.” Raymond Valadez, Moreno’s chief of staff, says this requirement addresses the city’s vacant-storefront problem.

Lynn Basa, a full-time artist, agrees this is an important component. As an owner of a building on Milwaukee Avenue that houses artists and studios, she knows there’s a large demand among local artists for studio space—and a large supply of empty storefronts. “I’ve gotten to know my fellow property owners on my struggling strip of Milwaukee,” Basa says, “and they’re the ones who don’t know about the live-work possibility. Their storefronts are going vacant month after month while two to three artists a week contact me for space.”

Few people I interviewed for this article knew about the live-work ordinance. Moreno’s office hopes to correct this by organizing “briefing sessions” for the public beginning in late August or early September.

Getting the word out is one thing. Getting vacant storefronts habitable and up to code is another. Live-work units’ living areas must comply with the city’s building code, recently updated to accommodate the newly legal spaces. But the process of securing permits and converting storefronts into livable units is expensive. And banks are reluctant to lend money, especially to new business owners.

Basa explored the build-out of spaces in her own building that would conform to the live-work rules. “What I found,” she says, “was that artists couldn’t afford what I would have to charge at a minimum market rate.”

Still, Jayaram sees the new ordinance as a positive move and is “in favor of any ordinance that helps open the doors of opportunity for artists.”

Four years after the financial meltdown of 2008, the new ordinance may be too late for artists like Picard, who now runs a small press and a blog. Yet, Picard maintains, “Chicago is still a great place to get started as an artist.”

Find the Business Live-Work Ordinance at chicago.legistar.com.

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