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Aldermen Likely To Retain Power Over Ward Development

The city of Chicago is going through a period of almost unprecedented political turmoil, and change is in the air. Mayor Rahm Emanuel decided not to run for a third term, and scandal has enveloped 14th Ward Alderman Ed Burke, the City Council’s most powerful and long-standing member, as well as 25th Ward Alderman Danny Solis, the former head of the influential Zoning Committee.

Waguespack
32nd Ward Alderman Scott Waguespack

Those scandals may touch other powerful politicians like House Speaker Mike Madigan, and several mayoral candidates, scrambling the odds on who will take over the top spot after a 30-year reign by former Mayor Richard M. Daley and his protégé Emanuel. 

Amidst the tumult, some say the city should rid itself of certain political sacred cows like aldermanic privilege, a City Council tradition that allows aldermen to have final say on almost all development decisions in their wards, a power Burke used to pressure a businessman, according to a federal criminal complaint

Changes to this tradition could impact momentous land-use decisions that will shape the city for decades. Massive mixed-use developments such as Sterling Bay’s Lincoln Yards on the North Side and Related Midwest’s The 78 on the Near South Side have gotten ensnared by demands made by council members exercising their privilege.

Major development firms typically swing a lot of weight with City Hall and the City Council, but their position on the issue of aldermanic privilege isn’t clear. Sterling Bay, Related Midwest, GlenStar Properties (a developer that last year filed a lawsuit against a Northwest Side alderman for blocking a proposed residential project), Lendlease Development (which had to revise the latest phase of its Lakeshore East community) and others all declined to comment to Bisnow on these difficulties.

“They decided to clam up because they know they have to come back to the table,” 32nd Ward Alderman Scott Waguespack said.  

Waguespack believes aldermanic privilege is likely to have staying power.

One reason the tradition will probably endure is that the city vests so much power in the mayor’s office, and aldermanic privilege is one of the few ways council members can wield influence.

Dozens of candidates for the upcoming City Council elections have been asked at debates whether they support changing this tradition, and with the Burke scandal looming so large in the minds of voters, many responded in the affirmative. Waguespack is skeptical.

“I doubt we’ll see any votes on it. Once they see how high-handed the administration is, they will change their minds pretty quick.”

Another difficulty with reforming the practice is that it is sometimes hard to even define it.

“Aldermanic privilege is not a written law or an ordinance of any sort, it’s just a series of traditions that took shape over the past 150 years,” former 44th Ward Alderman Dick Simpson said.

Simpson, who now teaches at University of Illinois at Chicago and led the opposition to the first Mayor Richard Daley in the 1970s, added that the tradition does get ignored from time to time.

42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly last year forced Lendlease and its partner, Magellan Development Group, to change the park design and add a security post to their $1.1B expansion at Lakeshore East. But in 2008 he had to back down when the full City Council decided over his objection to back Daley’s proposal for a $100M underground Children’s Museum in Grant Park.   

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

“The lesson is, when there is an issue so important that it affects the whole city, the tradition can be set aside,” Simpson said.  

The plans for Lincoln Yards and The 78 both call for thousands of apartments, new office complexes and acres of parkland, and will use nearly $2B from city-sponsored tax-increment financing districts to pay for infrastructure improvements.

That opens up the possibility the full council will do more than rubber stamp the local alderman’s decision, according to Simpson.

Third Ward Alderman Pat Dowell stepped in after Related won city approval last fall for its 62-acre The 78, and demanded the company drop plans for a new Red Line train station on the southeast corner of 15th and Clark streets, after hearing complaints about the station from Dearborn Park residents.

The company responded by moving the proposed station across Clark Street, and into Solis’ district, just before news broke of his possibly corrupt dealings with a lobbyist who had represented Nadhmi Auchi, co-developer of The 78 site. Solis resigned as head of Zoning, making way for 46th Ward Alderman James Cappleman.

A city commission voted Wednesday, with Dowell’s support, to advance the plan to the full City Council, but it is unclear what will happen if the 25th Ward gets a new alderman.  

Lincoln Yards, sandwiched between several quiet residential neighborhoods, some represented by Waguespack, has aroused far more community opposition.

Second Ward Alderman Brian Hopkins, whose district includes the Lincoln Yards site, earlier this year showed just how much power council members wield when he axed Sterling Bay’s plans for a 20,000-seat soccer stadium, and a giant entertainment complex run by events promoter Live Nation.  

That move came after several boisterous, and at times angry, community meetings that attracted hundreds concerned about traffic congestion, noise and the use of public funds to create the project.

Hopkins then approved the plan’s presentation to the Chicago Plan Commission on Jan. 24, which quickly gave its assent.

But the saga seems far from over.

Cappleman, as new head of the Zoning Committee, has opened the possibility that Hopkins may not be allowed to have the final say.

Late last week, he blocked Sterling Bay’s $6B proposal and left it in limbo, at least until he saw plans to create more affordable housing.

Waguespack has been a vocal critic of Sterling Bay’s plan for Lincoln Yards, even more than Hopkins. He said he believes the thousands of new units, including the construction of several towers up to 650 feet high, would be too dense for the area.

Considering the possible impact, he said it would have made sense for all the council members who represented neighborhoods around Lincoln Yards to have a voice. But Hopkins was not in favor.

“The response has basically been, ‘stay out of my turf,’” Waguespack said.  

“That’s what makes all this so complicated. It’s easy to say, ‘get rid of aldermanic privilege,’ or ‘don’t allow individual alderman to control a development that impacts the whole city,’ but where do you draw the line?”

Some minor changes could be made this year.

Simpson believes it is possible the next mayor could issue an executive order curbing the power of individual City Council members to approve permits, which historically have led to abuses like the one Burke is accused of, but leave intact their power over zoning decisions that affect their wards.    

Ultimately, Waguespack is strongly in favor of aldermanic privilege, because without it, decisions would revert to the mayor and a planning department that too often defers to developers, he said.    

“There are a lot of professionals in the planning department, but they are overruled by the corporate lawyer in charge,” meaning Planning Commissioner David Reifman.

Waguespack was first elected in 2007 on a platform of curbing what had been a frenetic pace of new construction in the ward, and the power granted alderman allowed him to reign it in.

“When I first started, it was the Wild West out here, with the entire neighborhood for sale.”