CHICAGO — Former 45th Ward Ald. John Arena started Monday as a senior adviser in the Planning Department, four months after relinquishing his Far Northwest Side City Council seat.
Arena, who served two terms on the City Council, will be paid $123,996 annually to act as “a liaison between [the Department of Planning and Development] and other entities across the city focused on economic development,” according to a statement released by city officials.
Arena will also be charged with pushing initiatives in “in qualified investment areas” on the South and West sides where developments can qualify for grants from the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund, which is fueled by developers in and near the Loop that want to build more dense projects, officials said.
The former alderman is “uniquely qualified” because of his experience in championing developments designed to spur economic growth, officials said.
Arena, who will make more in his new position than he did as an alderman, was hired despite a citywide hiring freeze announced by Mayor Lori Lightfoot at the end of August as she detailed the $838 million budget gap facing the city.
City officials had “been in conversation with the candidate since prior to the announcement of the hiring freeze,” according to the statement released by officials.
Arena did not return a phone message from The Daily Line.
Arena, who endorsed Lightfoot over Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, in the mayoral runoff, was considered by the mayor for a number of positions, officials said.
The former alderman will advise Maurice Cox, Lightfoot’s pick for planning commissioner who comes to Chicago from Detroit, in an effort to help him understand his new home, officials in the mayor’s office said.
If Arena stays on the city’s payroll for two years, his eight years as an alderman would qualify him for a city pension.
Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st) said Arena — with whom he bitterly clashed over plans to build affordable housing on the Far Northwest Side — was the wrong pick.
“He shouldn’t be advising anyone on anything,” Napolitano said, adding that he believed Arena took the job with the city to “weasel” his way into a municipal pension. “He doesn’t work well with other aldermen and residents. He’s a bully.”
Arena is not the first ousted Northwest Side aldermen to land a job at the Planning Department. Former 41st Ward Ald. Mary O’Connor, who was defeated by Napolitano, earns $117,000 annually as a deputy commissioner in the department.
An ally of former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, O’Connor was hired in 2015.
“It is aggravating,” Napolitano said. “I don’t think it is right.”
Arena lost his seat to Ald. Jim Gardiner (45th) in February after a bruising fight over two housing developments that included affordable housing proposals in the 41st and 45th wards. Gardiner won 51.4 percent of the vote in a four-way race.
Napolitano, who is the only member of the City Council who is not a Democrat, supported Gardiner.
In 2017, Arena pushed through plans for a seven-story, 75-unit mixed-income complex at 5150 N. Northwest Highway in the 45th Ward. Napolitano and local neighborhood groups said the development would spur violent crime in Jefferson Park, which ranks among the city’s safest neighborhoods.
That project was ultimately approved by the City Council, and it won state tax credits on Arena’s last day in office.
In the 41st Ward, Arena supported plans opposed by Napolitano to build a seven-story, 297-unit luxury apartment complex near the Cumberland CTA Blue Line station that would have included 30 units set aside for low- and-moderate income Chicagoans.
Those plans were dropped after other aldermen sided with Napolitano, in keeping with the City Council’s unwritten policy of giving aldermen the final say on developments in their wards.
Cox’s nomination to be planning commissioner is scheduled to be considered by the Zoning Committee on Oct. 15.