Rules are made for a reason

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Downtown Chicago and downtown Natchez don’t have all that much in common.

Natchez has no Trump Tower staring down from 92 stories above. Chicago has no horse-drawn carriages.

Both cities do have a river, though ours is bigger and flows in the right direction. (Chicago reversed the flow of its highly polluted waterway to protect its drinking water supply.)

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Traffic, population and even smell are as different as night and day in the two cities.

Yet, from the top of a big boat floating down (or was it up?) that polluted Chicago River for an architectural tour of the city skyline Sunday, one commonality became apparent.

At some point in history both cities made a few rules.

Chicago’s skyscrapers are fascinatingly different from one building to the next.

From the corn cob-shaped, circular towers of Marina City to the neo-Gothic Chicago Tribune building, creativity has been the name of the game in Chicago architecture.

But even creativity is guided by rules.

Chicago has no 50-story hot pink buildings.

No 80-foot signs stick out haphazardly from the sides of the structures.

Flowers, green space and landscaping are everywhere and obviously deliberate.

Like any well-planned city, building codes are in place to govern not only safety of the buildings, but use, design and landscaping.

In fact, according to Mayor Richard M. Daley’s message on the first page of the city’s building code, Chicago was among the first to make such building rules.

“In 1875, only four years after the Great Fire, the city of Chicago became a pioneer in the field of building regulations by establishing one of the nation’s first building codes,” Daley said.

The code grew from fire-safe standards to include rules and regulations on faade and design.

Ultimately the building commissioner approves construction of any kind before work ever begins.

The result — combined with some talented architects — is a skyline worthy of a $30 architectural tour for hundreds of people every day.

Hop into a horse carriage in Natchez and you won’t see any hot-pink buildings either. The signs you pass will be largely regulated and in compliance.

A building and preservation code like Chicago’s governs downtown Natchez, minus the section on skyscrapers.

But in recent years, after much poking and prodding from residents who simply don’t understand, the Natchez code has sprung a few leaks.

City government has made it OK for developers to bypass the preservation and planning commissions in order to get the “yes” they want to hear.

The sign ordinance is apparently no longer enforced at all.

And landscaping requirements can be traded in for parking lots if needed.

The Natchez City Planning Commission wants more green space around Fat Mama’s Tamales downtown, yet the asphalt remains. The commission has little means of enforcement, and most recently tried — in what came across as a petty, misdirected roadblock — to deny a totally separate Fat Mama’s request until the green space appears.

Years ago Natchez followed in the footsteps of great American cities like Chicago when it created ordinances governing building appearance. A few rules didn’t stop Chicago from growing to a city of more than 2 million people, and rules won’t kill business in Natchez either.

Natchez leaders would be wise to follow in much bigger footsteps and keep one of the few things they have in common with Chicago — rules.

Julie Cooper is the managing editor of The Democrat. She can be reached at 601-445-3551.