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Lightfoot's New Community-Oriented Approach Could Change How Developments Get Done Or Be More Of The Same

Mayor Lori Lightfoot directed some tough words toward Chicago’s business community on the night of her knockout April 2019 election victory, claiming the cozy deals between wealthy interests and City Hall were a thing of the past.

“We will put the interests of our people, all of our people, ahead of the interests of the powerful few,” Lightfoot said.

But transforming campaign rhetoric into effective action has not proven easy. 

Future site of Lincoln Yards

Shortly after her election, city council approved a $900M, 168-acre tax increment financing district designed under her predecessor for Sterling Bay’s Lincoln Yards, a proposed development sandwiched between the North Side neighborhoods of Lincoln Park and Bucktown. The council also approved a Tax Increment Financing district for Related Midwest’s The 78 neighborhood, a mixed-use project planned for a 62-acre section just southwest of downtown.

Many of her backers claimed the TIFs had been created without enough community buy-in and worried the massive public subsidies would fatten developers’ bottom lines without fully benefiting the surrounding communities. Lightfoot initially asked council members to delay the votes.

“We went on record saying Lincoln Yards needed more study, and it shouldn’t be approved,” North Branch Works Executive Director Jonathan Snyder said. The nonprofit promotes economic development along the North Branch of the Chicago River, where much of the development for Lincoln Yards will take place.

“It did not help when one of the key votes happened on a Thursday after the master plan was released on a Saturday,” Snyder added.   

Sterling Bay officials said they worked hard to keep community members informed, pointing to the dozens of meetings they held with neighborhood stakeholders, along with two massive community meetings hosted by 2nd Ward Alderman Brian Hopkins, whose district includes the Lincoln Yards site.    

Lightfoot eventually dropped her request for a delay, but vowed to have an impact after her inauguration.

“And in making future decisions about these and all other deals, we will work with stakeholders to allow for robust community input from the beginning and throughout,” she said the day before aldermen gave The 78 and Lincoln Yards the go-ahead.

As the projects roll forward, each will transform a vast section of the city, filling now-vacant spaces with thousands of residences, millions of square feet in new offices, as well as retail, amenities, parks and other businesses.

To fulfill her vow, the new mayor created Community Advisory Councils for both, composed of community members and experts. Charged with ensuring a transparent development as detailed plans take shape, the councils could herald a new, more open way of handling projects of this scale. But some fear they could simply provide developers with another way to claim they solicited community input, and continue doing what was planned all along.

“It worries me a lot, and we think about that possibility all the time,” Friends of the Parks Executive Director Juanita Irizarry said. After receiving encouragement from Hopkins, the longtime community activist filed an application with the city and was chosen for Lincoln Yards’ 14-member council.

“We’re not here to give Sterling Bay cover, we’re here to air real concerns about improvements that can be made,” she said.

Irizarry doesn’t want to see a repeat of what happened in early 2019.

Sterling Bay had run into a storm of opposition when it unveiled the Lincoln Yards plan. Activist groups helped pack a February hearing held by the city’s Community Development Commission. They were protesting what they saw as a rush to approve a TIF that would divert nearly $1B in expected local property taxes for more than two decades. The funds would help create new infrastructure, including bridges, a renovated Metra station, an eastern extension of the 606 trail and reconstructed street intersections. Commissioners listened for the whole day before voting unanimously for the TIF and sending it along to the city council for final approval.

“I had hoped that there would be a lot more community input before it got to the commission and the city council,” Irizarry said.

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

Before voting, some commissioners criticized Sterling Bay. CDC member Gwendolyn Butler, president and chief investment officer of Capri Investment Group, said she was dissatisfied with the company’s plans for future community engagement, and wanted to see something with more structure.

Lightfoot’s decision to do just that is a break with the past, according to Snyder.

“I don’t think this would have happened under the previous administration,” he said.

“There is no current or pending zoning requirement for the formation of CACs but the city’s three largest mixed-use projects, including [Farpoint Development’s] Michael Reese, are all utilizing councils to facilitate ongoing community discussions involving construction, phasing, infrastructure and other local issues,” according to a statement from the city’s Department of Planning and Development.

Snyder was chosen to sit on the Lincoln Yards CAC and then elected its chair. Other members come from local neighborhood groups such as the Bucktown Community Organization and Lincoln Central Association, as well as architects, urban planning experts and other advocates.

The CAC gives them all a voice, Snyder said.

“Speaking as a director of North Branch Works, the TIF was voted on and established, so we have decided to work within the current landscape and, although I know this sounds like a cliché, to make sure the project is the best it can be,” he said. “It’s better to see a development done right, rather than see vacant land go unused for years.”

The North Branch of the Chicago River once teemed with factories that provided employment for thousands, and Snyder’s organization will in the years ahead push for Lincoln Yards to include similar high-quality, well-paying jobs, he said. A renovated Metra station would most likely be used by commuting office workers, so North Branch Works will also fight for transportation links such as bus lines that allow residents from the South and West Sides to reach jobs in Lincoln Yards.

Sterling Bay said following such advice, and incorporating it into new developments, is already company policy.  

“While the establishment of the Lincoln Yards CAC is new, this is not Sterling Bay’s first foray in community engagement,” the company told Bisnow in a statement. “As a local developer working in Chicago’s neighborhoods, we spend a lot of time meeting with community members, both formally and informally. Further, through the city’s development approval process, we have been engaging community members for years regarding the impact of various mixed-use projects across Chicago.”

The company early last year canceled plans for a 20,000-seat stadium at Lincoln Yards after community members and Hopkins complained it would jam up the neighborhoods with traffic whenever events were held. It also agreed to limit the heights of the tallest buildings to 595 feet, down from 650, and limit the development to about 14.5M SF, down from 15M SF.

Sterling Bay said its first building at Lincoln Yards will be a 300K SF building designed by Gensler and dedicated to life sciences. It plans to eventually make the development a hub for life sciences, with laboratories and offices, a place tenants can make into a true scientific community.

Sterling Bay's plan for its new life sciences building at Lincoln Yards

Snyder likes the idea, and said the life sciences sector typically creates a lot of spillover jobs that don’t require an advanced degree.

Irizarry said Friends of the Parks will advocate for the site to include more parks and green space within the 21 acres set aside as open land. The group also wants the Chicago Park District to take over some privately owned recreational space to ensure it is maintained for the public. Sterling Bay endorses that idea, but the city has so far balked, citing cost concerns.  

Friends of the Parks will also fight to create the North Branch Park and Nature Preserve, a proposed 24-acre riverfront space mostly occupied by General Iron, a scrap dealer planning to move operations to the South Side. It has significant community support, including from Hopkins and other local aldermen, but it’s just outside the official boundaries of Lincoln Yards, and will require heavy buy-in from the cash-strapped city government.

“Everyone says warm and fuzzy things about it,” Irizarry said.

Both Snyder and Irizarry agreed it’s too early to fully evaluate how well this new advisory process works. The first advisory council meeting for Lincoln Yards was held in June, a second in September and the next will be in December. Most of the meetings, all held virtually, have mostly consisted of Sterling Bay officials giving overviews of their progress. CAC members have also spent a great deal of time holding independent virtual meetings to get to know one another and hash out future plans.  

Friends of the Chicago River Executive Director Margaret Frisbie, another Lincoln Yards CAC member, praised the attitude of Sterling Bay officials so far.

“They have been receptive to our ideas,” she said.

Her organization, which also placed a staff member on the CAC for Related Midwest’s The 78, will advocate that both projects make their riverfronts into publicly accessible habitats for native plants and grasses, as well as protect the river from storm runoff and other pollutants. These strategies have recently gained favor among Chicago developers, who increasingly see waterfronts as valuable amenities. Frisbie said the CACs can help further popularize the trend.

“It may not make sense to have advisory councils for all new development, but if we can use Lincoln Yards and The 78 as examples, we can set best practices and raise the bar for all future development,” she said.

Frisbie said it’s also important for CAC members to work for a common vision, one that includes jobs, environmental protection and affordable housing, and not just focus on their particular area of expertise.          

“That will give the voice of the community a strength it would not have if everyone acted individually, and the CACs will also give that a formal aspect, so I think the Plan Commission will pay attention, the mayor will pay attention and the city council will pay attention.”

“We’re going to make sure the needs of the community are not lost in the process,” Snyder said. “Everyone is committed to making sure this is more than a way for developers to just check off a box.”