From left to right: Swasti Shah, director of community engagement, ULI Chicago; Cynthia Roubik, assistant commissioner, Department of Planning & Development, City of Chicago; Grant Ullrich, deputy commissioner, Department of Buildings, City of Chicago; Judith Frydland, commissioner, Department of Buildings, City of Chicago; Alicia Berg, ULI Chicago committee chair and vice president for campus planning and sustainability, University of Chicago; James Lindberg, vice president, research and policy lab, National Trust for Historic Preservation; Cynthia McSherry, executive director, ULI Chicago, at Chicago’s City Hall.

The city of Chicago is celebrating the adoption of an extensive overhaul of its building code that has been decades in the making. The new code means some big changes ahead for the city. For ULI Chicago’s Building Reuse Initiative, it also represents a significant step forward in its work to clear a path for more building reuse throughout the city.

The April approval of a code modernization ordinance is the first comprehensive revision to significant portions of the Chicago Building Code in nearly 70 years. “This building code was absolutely necessary. So, the change is exciting,” says Judith Frydland, commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Buildings. The new code will be published and available this fall, with implementation that will be phased in between December 1, 2019, and July 31, 2020.

ULI first teamed up with the National Trust for Historic Preservation several years ago to create the Partnership for Building Reuse to make it easier to reuse existing buildings. Chicago is one of five cities participating in this initiative along with Los Angeles, Detroit, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. The Partnership for Building Reuse launched in Chicago in early 2015 with a primary objective to remove obstacles and make it easier to reuse existing, often older buildings.

“Our key recommendation was that the Chicago Building Code needed to be updated and we had specific ideas of how to do that,” says Swasti Shah, director of community engagement for ULI Chicago. Notably, the partnership encouraged Chicago to adopt more flexible requirements for rehab work to encourage the reuse of smaller, older buildings in neighborhoods that often struggle to attract private investment.

The new Chicago Building Rehabilitation Code, based on the International Existing Building Code, will provide tailored requirements for different scopes of work in existing buildings, replacing the “one-size-fits-all” approach of the current rehab code with a more flexible framework of requirements that is designed to work for a wide range of projects. For complex projects, the new rehabilitation code will offer a point-based system to evaluate various approaches to ensuring that a project will provide adequate life-safety protection for occupants. It will also provide greater clarity on alternatives available to historically significant buildings.

Bringing Stakeholders Together

One of the biggest challenges for any city to introduce comprehensive change to its building code is that it is simply a huge project. Government is always resource-constrained and likes to break projects into phases, notes Grant Ullrich, deputy commissioner in the city of Chicago’s Department of Buildings. In the past, changing building code specific to building reuse and rehab was an easy piece to carve out and put on the back burner for later.

The current rehab code has been in place since 1983. “The ULI group came in and brought attention to the fact that it needed refreshing,” says Ullrich. That was helpful, because previous discussions had always centered on doing new construction codes first, and then tackling rehab code later because of the complexity, he says.

The partnership conducted extensive research on the older building stock, which included examining reasons why they were not being reused. Its findings were presented in a comprehensive 2016 report titled “Building on Chicago’s Strengths: The Partnership for Building Reuse.”

The report identified specific barriers, such as zoning rules related to parking and floor/area ratio requirements and identified recommendations to address those challenges. With these barriers in mind, the partnership recommended key strategies and a short list of action items to strengthen building reuse in Chicago. Top priorities outlined in the report included the following:

  1. Adopt adaptive use policies within the Chicago Zoning Code to streamline the process for determining past uses of an existing building for a nonresidential use in select residential areas and for residential uses in select nonresidential areas.
  2. Extend parking relief and increase floor/area ratio requirements to support building reuse projects.
  3. Apply the Chicago Building Code in a more flexible manner for older buildings.
  4. Support community development organizations, nonprofit developers, and small-scale developers.
  5. Strengthen the use of financial incentives that support building reuse and explore the implementation of new financial tools.
  6. Amend the 2015 Ordinance for Transit-Served Locations to areas served by bus lines.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation was a great partner in the effort since it helped bring in a lot of data that were critical in building a strong case for change, says Alicia Berg, chair of the ULI Building Reuse Initiative. “To be able to have a partner who could really bring that capacity and that data and help us think about in a realistic way was incredibly important to the process,” she says.

The partnership also helped drive conversation on building reuse throughout the city, engaging more than 80 community development practitioners, land use professionals, historic preservation advocates, green building leaders, and city staff. ULI Chicago tapped the expertise of its membership, and also organized a series of meetings, interviews, and workshops.

ULI is such a great organization to help spearhead this type of effort, because it does have breadth and depth of stakeholders across a variety of disciplines, such as developers, owners, and architects, who provide a lot of intellectual capital to research efforts, says Berg. A lot of people are on the ground trying to figure it out every single day, and they added valuable input on needed changes, she adds.

New Code Increases Flexibility

The city’s early building code had more of a tear-down mentality where every project had to comply with the new construction code. The rehab code that was introduced in 1983 did recognize that rehab projects had some distinct differences and did not need to fully meet new construction standards. “The rehab code we had represented a lot of progress from the previous view that everything should comply, but it could only go so far. So, the initial conversations were around trying to push a little farther where we knew it wasn’t working well,” says Ullrich.

For example, under the previous code, if an owner added more than 25 percent to the building’s square footage, then the whole building had to comply with new construction building code. That might make sense for a downtown skyscraper, but the city was not always enforcing that code with homeowners. “So, it had become very confusing with what the code said and what we were allowing when people knew to ask for variances,” says Ullrich.

Building code is meant to create safety standards within buildings. However, there also is a recognition at the city level that making it difficult to reuse buildings can lead to vacant buildings that can lead to a whole new set of problems and safety issues. So, the goal is to find solutions to keep buildings occupied, adds Frydland. “My desire is to see multiunit vacant buildings on the west and the south side brought back to use and occupancy,” she says. “Many of these are beautiful brick buildings with good bones, and you would never build to that level of construction today.”