WEST LOOP — Faced with a question about whether a developer contributed to his campaign, Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th) abruptly walked out of a development meeting with community members from the West Loop Tuesday night.
“I’m gone. I don’t have to respond to that. I don’t have to deal with that,” the alderman said as he grabbed his jacket and left the meeting about a proposed building in the West Loop.
The alderman’s dramatic departure frustrated some of the residents on hand, but Burnett told them before he left that he had gone to bat for the construction of their building — only to be asked by them to block a proposed one nearby.
The meeting was to discuss a proposed 6-story, 25-unit condo building at 123 S. Peoria St. across from Mary Bartelme Park.
Burnett told more than 70 residents that he was well aware of their concerns about the project. Residents questioned its proximity to two nearby residential buildings as well as the obstruction of natural light from the proposed 79-foot building.
Burnett chalked those up to the blocking of a view, which he said he didn’t consider when making a decision on a proposal.
“I know how all of you … feel. I’ve gotten all of your emails. I know what your concerns are. I hear you. I think it’s very selfish to be quite honest with you,” Burnett told residents at Revel Fulton Market, 1215 W. Fulton Market St.
“I just need you all to know that when your building was built I got my butt kicked for your building,” he told residents of Illume, a contentious condo building that resulted in a lawsuit against the city just two years earlier.
Burnett said it would be “unfair” to block the proposed development based on the same argument residents — in a once disputed building — are now making against a similar building.
“I’m treating you like I treated the building next to you. The building next to you was against your building for all the reasons you’re against [this] building,” he said.
During the longtime alderman’s exchange with one resident, another resident from Illume interrupted and asked: “How much money did [the developers of the project] contribute to you? That’s what I want to know.”
Following the question, Burnett approached residents arms outstretched and declared the “meeting was over.”
“I don’t need to meet anymore. I’m gone. I don’t have to respond to that. I don’t have to deal with that,” he said as he made his way toward the exit.
“I hear everything. I know how you feel. Thank you very much. Goodbye. You can continue to meet with the developer. I’m gone. Thank you very much,” Burnett said.
During his exit, frustrated residents stood up asking the alderman to return despite the question that prompted his walkout.
In an effort to maintain decorum, Carla Agostinelli, executive director of West Loop Community organization that hosted the gathering alongside Burnett, said the meeting would continue but urged everyone to conduct themselves in an orderly fashion.
“We want to be extremely respectful to absolutely everyone in this room. … Rest assured that any additional concerns [will be] forwarded to the alderman,” she said.
Frustrated residents said the meeting was now pointless without Burnett, who has the final say on whether the project gets approved.
“I can’t believe the alderman left this meeting,” a resident told fellow attendees and developer Zev Salomon and zoning attorney Michael Ezgur, who were also on hand.
“We are his community. He took his football and went home. Now we have to have another community meeting where he sits down and listens to us because of all the people in this room. There’s only one person that’s got the power to approve or disapprove of this project and that’s unfortunately him. He has to listen to us. What he said is unfair.”
Illume residents said their opposition to the project, which would extend between Peoria and Green streets, had nothing to do with views and instead had to do with the blockage of light, privacy and safety concerns.
Jeremiah Bickham, a resident of another building alongside the proposed development, said he was “disheartened” by the walkout. “Burnett is known to be developer friendly, but he’s also known to be pragmatic.”
Bickham was hoping by residents coming together in large numbers they could make a compelling case against the proposed development.
Bickham said Burnett needed to prioritize the needs of residents over developers.
“It’s ironic that he chose the word selfish because there is nothing more selfish than shoehorning … in an awkward development … that has negative externalities on the community for the benefit of a few,” Bickham said.
Bickham said the developer should consider a commercial retail or community amenity at the narrow property.
West Loop Community Organization’s executive director Agostinelli said the walkout was unprecedented for the alderman who had just been re-elected for a seventh term to serve the 27th ward.
Agostinelli said she would be reaching out to Burnett in hopes of scheduling another meeting.
“We want to make certain that we circle back with the developer … and they do their best, and that they exhaust their efforts to address the concerns of the immediate community that will be impacted. “
Late Tuesday night, Burnett told Block Club Chicago that the question that prompted the walkout “was not a big deal” but that he wasn’t going to “dignify the question with a response.”
“I’m not going to stand there and allow them to disrespect me … and humiliate me” Burnett said. “I am a human being. Just because I’m an elected official doesn’t mean I’m not a human being.”
Burnett said he planned on ending the meeting at 7 p.m., and the question about development contributions opened up an opportunity to leave. He said he wasn’t aware whether the developer had donated to him or not. If they did and if it occurred six months before or after the project was proposed, he said he’d return it or give it charity.
Burnett has, in fact, taken campaign contributions from two firms associated with the project. On May 8, 2018, Acosta Exgur LLC, the zoning attorneys for the project, donated $1,000 to his campaign. They previously donated a total of $1,500 in 2014 and 2015. Sullivan Goulette and Wilson, the architecture firm on the project, donated $200 Burnett in 2014.
Meanwhile, despite the assumption that he favors developers, Burnett said he makes developers “jump through hoops” to amend their plans based on feedback from residents and community groups.
Burnett said he had multiple meetings with residents for the proposed project during ward nights, taken calls and emails on the project.
“I try to respect folks, but I’m not going to stand there and be disrespected because they feel entitled to a view.”
A recording of the meeting is below. Burnett’s departure comes after the 6-minute mark:
This story has been updated to detail contributions made to Ald. Walter Burnett’s campaign fund by firms associated with the project.