LINCOLN PARK — In a few days, the Lincoln Yards development moves another step closer to approval. While the sprawling plan is primarily in the city’s oddly-shaped 2nd Ward, the project has become a hot topic in the race for 43rd Ward alderman.
Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) joined Derek Lindblom, Leslie Fox, Jacob Ringer, Steve McClellan and Rebecca Janowitz for a debate last week at Lincoln Park High School, 2001 N. Orchard St. And while the crowd of candidates disagreed on issues of policing and alderman prerogative, they all agreed on one thing: the Lincoln Yards plan is moving too fast.
Smith, a two-term incumbent who survived a run-off election in 2015, may only have a slice of Lincoln Yards in her ward, but she’s been vocal about her desire to slow down the approval process, especially since $900 million in public TIF money is on the line.
Over the weekend, Lincoln Yards released a new plan that shows how Sterling Bay will replace controversial music venues and a soccer stadium with a large park and low-rise buildings.
The revised plan got the approval from Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd). The proposal will go before the Chicago Plan Commission on Thursday, but Smith — along with Friends of the Parks, the Chicago Independent Venues League (CIVL) and other community groups are worried about the plan moving forward so quickly after it underwent such big changes.
“What is the hurry?” Fox asked the crowd. “These TIFs were created for blighted areas. They should be used in blighted areas.”
Ringer said he supported TIFs when the project is laid out ahead of time and if the TIF expires upon the completion of the development. He also expressed excitement over two east-west bridges that Sterling Bay said would alleviate traffic, and the developer’s recent announcement that they would fund a library or school.
But would he support giving the green light this week?
“The short answer is not yet,” Ringer said.
Lindblom said that “zero dollars” should go to developers and that the TIF money should only be used to fund infrastructure, public parks and schools.
Ald. Smith said she has been fighting to include the 43rd Ward in the development since the beginning.
She said that a public park on the east bank of the Chicago River would be a “true public benefit,” but urged voters to put pressure both on City Hall and Sterling Bay to ensure that it gets done.
The proposal released over the weekend does include an 11-acre park.
Park or not, Smith said TIF proposal should slow down.
Fox went further, calling for a moratorium on all TIFs until “transparency is restored.”
Janowitz said she was skeptical that TIFs play an actual role in assisting blighted areas, calling for a more open and transparent budgeting system.
McClellan was the only candidate to unequivocally say that Lincoln Yards should not get public funding.
“No. I am not in favor of the TIF coming to this neighborhood,” McClellan said. “Let’s think about how much other neighborhoods could use that fund.”
Crime and Policing
When it was time to talk crime, all candidates agreed that it is one of the key issues facing the ward.
Last year, Smith teamed up with other aldermen in areas that had seen a spike in armed carjackings, most of which were carried out by juveniles — who, when caught, were released from police custody within 24 hours, she said.
“We found that juveniles who were arrested with guns were often released within 24 hours,” she said during the debate. “And 42 percent of those juveniles were arrested within a year, half for violent crimes.”
She went on to call for tougher sentences for kids found with weapons.
“Crime has to have consequences,” Smith told the Sun-Times last year. “We’re not helping our community and we’re not helping our kids. We’re not even giving them a ‘time out’ for carrying a gun.”
Everyone agreed that more beat cops, smarter technology and increasing ongoing training for police were key ways to deter crime.
Fox and McClellan mentioned increasing access to mental health facilities as a way to improve public safety. Fox, who has billed herself as the education candidate, said that “safe schools equal better security.”
Challenging aldermanic power
As some voters call for term limits for aldermen — especially as powerful 50-year Ald. Ed Burke’s (14th) faces an extortion charge — Smith, Ringer and Janowitz said they did not support aldermanic term limits.
Smith said aldermen have “institutional knowledge of their neighborhoods,” and when term limits are applied it can empower lobbyists instead.
Ringer said that he supports term limits for the mayor and committee chair leaders in City Hall, however, and added that he believes the city should have fewer aldermen in general.
Fox, Lindblom and McClellan all said that they support term limits.
Candidates were also asked about their stance on aldermanic prerogative, which often gives alderman immense power over their wards, especially when it comes to development and housing.
Fox said the practice of going through aldermen to get something built was inherently corrupt, saying it was openly used as “a way to take care of donors.”
“It gives (alderman) too much power on public policy,” she added.
Lindblom said that prerogative needs to be “reduced and reformed.”
“Too often, aldermen hold businesses, nonprofits and residents’ permits hostage for political or other reasons and that needs to stop,” he said.
Janowitz said that it was “unlikely” that sitting alderman would ever abolish the privilege.
Smith, Ringer and McClellan all supported prerogative in different ways.
“There is way too much aldermanic prerogative for small things,” Smith said. “It’s a good thing on zoning and that is how I do development with neighbors. We don’t want our everyday development in the hands of Downtown.”
Ringer said he supports the prerogative when it comes to affordable housing.
“Aldermen should have a right to get community input and represent their neighborhood,” he said.
McClellan said that people must elect officials who can be trusted “to do what is supposed to be done.”
“I am in favor [of aldermanic prerogative],” he said. “It just has to be used correctly.”
Weed and revenue
All candidates agreed that bringing cannabis retailers into the neighborhood would be a good way to raise revenue, providing certain conditions were met.
All five challengers said that they would commit to being a full-time alderman if they were elected. Smith, in a moment of candor, admitted that she made a mistake by holding outside employment (consulting for an arts foundation) during her first term.
“I went over my skis a little bit,” she said.
Smith reminded voters that this term she has been a full-time alderman.
Property taxes have hit the 43rd Ward hard in recent years, and, unsurprisingly, all candidates stated that they would not raise the property tax if elected.
Fox and Smith both mentioned over-assessed houses in the ward and the need to properly assess skyscrapers Downtown, which are currently being under-assessed by over a billion dollars, according to Smith.
A Tribune/ProPublica investigation revealed former Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios’ “error-ridden” assessment system that consistently under-valued Downtown buildings while over-burdening smaller homes. He was defeated by new assessor Fritz Kaigi last year, who vowed to fix the system.
Fox said her own home was assessed at 40 percent, a number that she says is much too high.
Lindblom said that his campaign is opposed to the so-called “lakefront tax,” floated by mayoral candidate Susana Mendoza, which would create a tiered, progressive property tax that would mostly apply to high price homes in lakefront neighborhoods. Smith, Ringer and McClellan opposed it as well.
“Before we tax poor people further, we should look at putting our fiscal house in order,” Janowitz said.
The evening’s discourse remained largely civil throughout the forum, much to the delight of event organizers who thanked both the crowd and the candidates for good behavior.
The debate was sponsored by the Lincoln Central Association, the Wrightwood Neighbors Association and the Park West Community Association.
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