Chicago Alderman Proco Joe Moreno wanted to help a business that had contributed to his campaign coffers. So he told Brian Strauss, a firefighter and property owner, to rent his building to the business or suffer the consequences. When Strauss refused to comply, Moreno made good on his threats, downzoning Strauss's building and scuttling multiple attempts to sell the property.
Strauss is now suing, arguing that Moreno's abuses of his aldermanic powers violate Strauss' rights under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.
According to Strauss's suit, Moreno's threats and eventual downzoning "were completely out of character with both the zoning and actual uses of the neighborhood," "were proposed in bad faith," and "were done for personal rather than a public interest".
Strauss's trouble began in late 2015, when he tried to evict the Double Door Music Hall from a Wicker Park property his family had owned since the '60s. (The eviction was prompted by several lease violations.) Moreno, who had received more than $7,500 in campaign donations from Double Door's management, requested that Strauss let the business stay on.
Strauss declined and began looking for another tenant. Then Moreno's gloves came off.
"I'm tired of hearing about the sympathy of you and your family," the alderman reportedly told Strauss and his attorney at one meeting. "Double Door is going to be in that building, there will never be another tenant in there, there will never be another sign on that building."
Over the coming months, Moreno—in meetings brokered and attended by staffers for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel—tried to get Strauss to sell his building to Double Door for $7 million, despite its market value of nearly $10 million.
When that failed, the alderman started introducing downzoning proposals for Strauss's property that would have made it off limits for most business uses. In June 2017, Moreno even tried to reclassify the building as a residential unit, which would prohibit practically all commercial uses.
That failed, but in September the city council did pass a downzoning ordinance, which prevents Strauss from converting his property to a general restaurant, a bar, or even, ironically, its previous use as concert venue.
In a very public, and very disturbing, encounter with Strauss, Moreno made clear his zoning changes were all about extracting concessions.
"You can come back to me on your knees, which is going to happen," he raged. "It's gonna be an empty building with no income for you or your family."
Other officials went along with this under the longstanding practice of "aldermanic privilege," which basically means that other aldermen don't interfere with their colleagues' zoning and regulatory practices in their own wards.
Moreno's actions have taken their toll on Strauss's attempts to sell the building. Three sales have now fallen through, with developers citing the downzoning proposals as reasons for walking away.
Strauss is now asking for $9.6 million in damages from those lost sales, saying that Moreno's "extreme and outrageous" conduct amounts to a taking of his property without due process of law.
As Reason's Eric Boehm noted when this story surfaced in May, Moreno is not a big fan of property rights. He previously tried to prevent a Chick-Fil-A from opening in his ward because of the owners' views on gay marriage, and also attempted to block the construction of a Wal-Mart because it wasn't "a perfect fit for the area."
The rule of law requires that government officials have their authority held in check, specifically to prevent abuses like the ones that Chicago's civic system seems to encourage. Moreno is free to believe that Chick-fil-A's executives are wrong about gay marriage, and he's free to dislike shopping at Wal-Mart. He should not be able to use his position of authority to block those businesses from operating in his ward, and he certainly shouldn't be able to threaten property owners with targeted zoning changes if they don't kneel before him, as if he were some sort of feudal lord.
Strauss agrees, telling the government watchdog Project Six, "This isn't about the numbers, it's about aldermanic abuse of powers. You are just messing with people."
Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk/Double Door