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Sterling Bay's Lincoln Yards Plan Is Almost Home, But A New Mayor May Have Other Ideas

2nd Ward Alderman Brian Hopkins

Sterling Bay’s Lincoln Yards plan continued its expected march through Chicago’s City Council Wednesday afternoon. The full council voted 33-14 to approve the zoning changes needed to launch the $6B development. The tax increment financing district hasn’t been voted on yet.

The pet project of Mayor Rahm Emanuel will bring up to 6,000 apartments, millions of square feet of office space and riverfront parks to the former site of Finkl Steel, sandwiched between Lincoln Park and Bucktown along the Chicago River.

Chicago mayors over the past 30 years could usually count on winning near-unanimous votes on such projects, but Sterling Bay and Emanuel stepped into a hornet’s nest of criticism, driven by growing weariness with the proliferation of tax increment financing districts, and the growing power of progressive politics in the city and state.     

The winners of the recent mayoral primary, Mayer Brown attorney and former head of the Chicago Police Board Lori Lightfoot and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, have both for months criticized Sterling Bay and Emanuel over the proposal, and say they will insist on changes when one takes over City Hall in May.

Protests usually accompany any public hearing or vote on Lincoln Yards, and yesterday was no different.

“The fact that they want to move fast through a deal the developer, Sterling Bay, keeps changing every single time we protest, shows that there’s more room to change, there’s room to shut this project down, listen to residents,” the Grassroots Collaborative Executive Director Amisha Patel said before the meeting.  

Sterling Bay has already been forced to make several lightning-fast changes to its overall plan, sometimes unveiling the new proposals to the public just days before key votes.

Second Ward Alderman Brian Hopkins, who represents a narrow band around the site, ended up as a supporter after using his power over ward development, known as aldermanic privilege, to force the cancellation of a 20,000-seat soccer stadium, increase the amount of park space and cut the height of proposed towers from 800 to no more than 600 feet.

Sterling Bay's new plan for Lincoln Yards reserves 40% of the space for parks.

Opposition from 46th Ward Alderman James Cappleman, who took over the council’s powerful Zoning Committee after 25th Ward Alderman Danny Solis resigned in the wake of the Ed Burke scandal, pushed Sterling Bay to double the amount of on-site affordable housing to 600 units.    

“This is the start of a 10-year project and we will continue to work collaboratively to transform the former industrial site into a vibrant riverfront community and a highly desirable place for all Chicagoans to live, work and play,” Sterling Bay spokesperson Sarah Hamilton said in a statement.

The full City Council still needs to approve the $900M TIF district, which will reimburse Sterling Bay after it completes several significant infrastructure improvements it considers necessary, including new bridges in the neighborhood, road realignments and new public transportation options.

The rise to power of either Lightfoot or Preckwinkle means another hurdle (or several) awaits Sterling Bay, ones it probably did not anticipate when it first unveiled the plan last summer.

“The allocation of the new money is going to come when the new mayor is in, and I’m not going to allocate a dime until what needs to be done, including more transparency and impact studies, actually happens,” Lightfoot said last week.