CHICAGO — One by one, aldermen unmuted their Zoom microphones Wednesday and, over the course of a seven-hour meeting, blasted the city’s planning commissioner for not seeking their input on developments.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot plucked Commissioner Maurice Cox from Detroit in 2019 to lead Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development, which oversees development in the city, including the mayor’s signature INVEST South/West initiative.
But a year into his reign as planning chief, Cox and his staff were repeatedly criticized for not communicating with aldermanic offices, including from key Lightfoot allies.
Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), Lightfoot’s pick to head the Public Safety Committee, graded Cox’s department with a “resounding D or F.”
“I’ve reached out multiple times to you and I don’t get a call back. I have a terrible relationship with your staff,” Taliaferro said. “I feel your staff make my community aware of proposed projects in my ward more than you make the alderman aware … I have to get my information through them, which is very disturbing.”
A frustrated Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) cut off Cox as he answered her question on engaging her office to tell him he was “not only being insulting, but … long-winded.”
After a few hours of the criticism, Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th) said he’d never witnessed such a scene.
“I got to tell you, commissioner, in almost 10 years as an alderman I’ve never been part of a budget hearing where so many of my colleagues talked about the same thing over and over, echoing not a lot of follow-through, not a lot of communication,” he said. “You’ve got to do a better job.”
Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) said he has a good relationship with Cox’s staff — but he brought up an issue that was indicative of the complaints of his colleagues.
In response to looting incidents and an economy wrecked by the pandemic, the planning department worked up “emergency” plans with the Mag Mile Association to create a local taxing district along Michigan Avenue.
The taxing district, known as a special service area, would impose a small tax on property owners in the corridor to pay for expanded services, including extra security, streetscaping and attracting businesses.
The application and approval process for a special service area typically takes more than a year, but the one proposed on Michigan Avenue moved forward on an “expedited” timeline, department staffers said.
Reilly said the plan was done without his “input and guidance” and only presented to his office as a “take it or leave it” package. He also casted doubt on a department staffer’s claim the taxing district could be in place by the end of the year.
“I’ve been investigating the Michigan [Avenue special service area] and there are a lot of property owners who are impacted who are not supportive of that proposal at all,” he said, explaining he was hesitant to add a further tax burden to Central Business District property owners.
“My criticism is that it shouldn’t be, ‘This is what we’re going to do, and we’re happy to talk about it.’ It should be, ‘We’re considering this. What do you think about it?’” he said.
After the hearing, department spokesman Peter Strazzabosco said Reilly’s input had been solicited “from the beginning of the process this summer.”
“The city as well as the Mag Mile Association has provided updates and property information and requested aldermanic comment,” he said.
Aldermen Want More INVEST South/West Dollars Invested On West Side
Cox also took heat, perhaps as a proxy for Lightfoot, for two signature programs touted by the administration: INVEST South/West and the upcoming We Will initiative to create the first comprehensive citywide planning document in 50 years.
INVEST South/West just celebrated its first anniversary, injecting more than $70 million into neighborhoods long neglected by City Hall, Cox said. But aldermen criticized Cox for not including neighborhoods in their South or West side wards, and some said the department spent too much time on the effort at the expense of other areas, including Downtown.
Taliaferro asked Cox how many program dollars were invested in his West Side ward, but as Cox searched for an answer, Taliaferro cut him off to say the answer was “none.”
Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) questioned how the Garfield Park neighborhood wasn’t included in the initial round of investment, despite being the “heart of the West Side of Chicago.”
Throughout the meeting, Cox said INVEST South/West looked to pair shovel-ready projects with private development to have an immediate impact.
The projects invested in to date, including a fire station in Englewood and the Laramie Bank redevelopment, were prioritized based on community feedback, he said.
“We build the strategy around those assets, and I think that’s the right thing to do, because it favors adaptive reuse first and clusters that development,” he said.
Ald. Maria Hadden (49th) also defended the plan, which does not include neighborhoods from her North Side ward.
“For the first time in decades, this city has made an affirmative, proactive commitment to investing dollars and resources in the South and West sides of the city that have been historically discriminated against, robbed of resources and opportunities,” she said. “Maybe we can just give it a moment.”
A Citywide Plan
In 2021, the city will begin a three-year community engagement process to solicit feedback for its We Will citywide planning document to guide zoning and development decisions throughout the neighborhoods.
But aldermen told Cox the process, which is in a “pre-planning phase,” is off to a bad start.
“The first time I heard about it was through an article in Crain’s,” said budget Chair Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd). “’We will’ what? Plan for a better Downtown? We will plan for a better neighborhood? I mean, we will do what?”
At the end of the meeting, Cox said it had been a “productive session.”
“This has been a year of learning, learning the expectations of aldermen and how to work,” he said. “I think we have a lot of work to do on the partnership side of this and the communication side.”
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