Lincoln Yards and the ‘lords’ of Chicago

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Photo by April Alonso

The $5 billion proposed Lincoln Yards project would bring condos, retail, and entertainment along the Chicago River between Lincoln Park and Bucktown and require TIF financing meant for economic development in blighted areas.

Update: The Lincoln Yards development was approved at a Plan Commission hearing today. 

The forced march to gain approval of the $6 billion, 55-acre Lincoln Yards project is a clear demonstration of the concentration of too much power in too few hands when it comes to development decisions in Chicago.

It comes at a sensitive time. The proposal needs approval by the City Council’s zoning and finance committees, and the long-time chairs of both committees now apparently face legal problems.

We know Ald. Edward Burke — recently replaced as finance committee chair by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s floor leader, Ald. Patrick O’Connor — faces extortion charges related to zoning approvals in his ward. He also — unbeknownst to the general public until recently — was representing Lincoln Yards developer Sterling Bay in its property tax appeals. O’Connor has been criticized for giving zoning approvals to development projects that his realtor wife later helped market. And we’ve just learned that retiring zoning committee chair Danny Solis (25th) has been wearing a wire for federal investigators as part of their investigation into Burke.

While we don’t know the extent of Solis’s possible legal troubles, the City Council’s corrosive feudalist culture is most certainly at play with Lincoln Yards, showcasing how aldermen wield total control over development in their wards in exchange for total loyalty to the mayor’s office. It’s a recipe for insider dealing and bad development decisions.

“In light of recent revelations about apparent alleged corruption by these powerful aldermen, it is clear that we must table the proposed mega-TIF deal at Lincoln Yards until we are able to be sure that the project has not been tainted,” Ald. Scott Waguespack, who has opposed the project in part due to density concerns, said in a statement Wednesday. “There are too many troubling questions and potential conflicts bound up in this multi-billion dollar proposal. It is the fruit of a poison tree.”

The $900 million Cortland/Chicago River TIF district which would finance infrastructure for Lincoln Yards (with an additional $400 million in financing costs) would require property owners throughout the city to pay $1.3 billion in higher taxes over the next couple decades. But due to Chicago’s feudal system, all the approvals by commissions and council committees hinge on the say-so of one person, 2nd Ward Ald. Brian Hopkins.

Hopkins is leading the charge publicly, but this project wouldn’t be happening without two additional key changes in personnel. First, Emanuel replaced Mayor Richard Daley, who was committed to a longstanding planned manufacturing district in place on the North Branch, a legacy of Harold Washington’s industrial retention policy, now the proposed site for the new development. Part of that story involves the disappearance of key pages of a planning department report that found the North Branch planned manufacturing district to be functioning well and worthy of continued support.

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Emanuel replaced Planning Commissioner Andrew Mooney, a PMD supporter, with David Reifman, a real estate zoning lawyer. Lastly, Daley redrew the 2nd Ward’s boundaries, putting most of the North Branch district in the ward, in order to get rid of then-Ald. Bob Fioretti. Hopkins was elected with an agenda favoring massive redevelopment.

Hopkins now insists there’s been an exhaustive community engagement process and all community concerns have been addressed. No one — except for Emanuel and Reifman —  agrees with him.

This week, 16 community organizations called for further review of the proposal. That was after Hopkins and Sterling Bay released a third master plan for Lincoln Yards — still lacking much detail and adding 25 percent to the buildable area on the site — days before the Chicago Plan Commission is expected to vote on it.

“The speed of this project being approved is troublesome,” Steve Jensen of the Bucktown Community Organization said at a press conference Monday. “The developer has stated it will take over 25 years to build this project out. We see no reason why they can’t wait another month.”

At least five mayoral candidates have called for postponing action. The editorial boards of the Tribune and Sun-Times have called for delay.

That’s a lot of opposition. It may count for nothing, though.

The Chicago Plan Commission, which is scheduled to consider the development plan on Thursday, and the Community Development Commission, which could approve the TIF proposal in February, consistently act as rubber stamps for the mayor, who appoints their members. The zoning and finance committees, which have to review the plan and the TIF, uniformly follow the lead of the alderman whose ward is in question.

On the other hand, the accumulating scandal surrounding the City Council and the city’s zoning and development system may be too much.

The current system is set up to benefit politicians and political insiders. We’ve seen how it fosters corruption and maintains housing segregation. At Lincoln Yards it’s working in the service of an unneeded project that will destroy good jobs and snarl traffic — and raise our taxes at a time when pension costs are increasing sharply — but make billions for developers. We need to break the system up and end this concentration of power.

  • I’m ready to march! Cold be damned. It’s not as cold as how these unethical criminals treat their constituents. #VoteThemOut #NoLincolnYards

  • Nice job, Curtis.