One of the most controversial development projects in recent Chicago history is scheduled to go before city council’s Zoning Committee Thursday. What happens at City Hall could determine if the $6 billion Lincoln Yards project goes from beset to beleaguered.
Nearly every medium or large-sized project in Chicago is met with cries from NIMBY neighbors about traffic, views, and safety. But the Lincoln Yards brouhaha has been unusually voluminous as groups — neighborhood and otherwise — galvanized around topics like public open space, infrastructure improvements, and gentrification. It didn’t help any when Lincoln Yards was floated as a potential location for Amazon’s HQ2 at a time when the public is starting to realize that west coast tech firms aren’t well-meaning nerds trying to make the world a better place, but actually used car salesmen in blue jeans and white Keds building machines that turn privacy into beachfront mansions.
The cacophony was turned up to 11 in the run-up to the city creating the largest TIF district in Chicago history: Nearly a billion dollars to pay for new bridges across the Chicago River, an extension of The 606, a new Metra station, new water taxi stops, and a reconfiguration of the Elston-Armitage-Ashland Circus.
Earlier this week the developers threw the city a bone by pledging to construct 600 affordable housing units, instead of the previously promised 300. That’s 10% of the new homes expected to be built on the Goose Island site. 2nd Ward Alderman Brian Hopkins’ support of Lincoln Yards cleared the way for a Zoning vote today.
While Hopkins is on board, the neighbors are not having it.
Forty-third Ward Alderman Michele Smith and 32nd Ward Alderman Scott Waguespack want the whole project put on ice until after the mayoral run-off election; as do both candidates for mayor. They accuse outbound mayor Rahm Emanuel of rushing the project through, as some kind of trophy to himself.
The criticism is very unusual in Chicago City Hall where for more than half a century it has been de rigueur for the remaining 49 aldermen to support any project that has the blessing of the leader of its home ward. We’re not talking about a social faux pas like using the wrong fork with the fish course. We’re talking about the guests at the aldermanic dining table putting napkins over their heads and eating with their hands.
So what’s on the line here? Twenty-one acres of public space, 6,000 new homes, 3.08 million square feet of commercial space, 220,000 square feet of hotel space, 812,000 square feet of retail space, 8.12 million square feet of mixed use space, thousands of temporary construction jobs, maybe tens of thousands of high-paying office jobs, and hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue.
In years past, the vote would be a no-brainer. And even with all of the noise surrounding the issue, so far there doesn’t appear to be enough aldermen voicing opposition to Lincoln Yards to scuttle the plan. But if nothing else, a few “no” votes will put all of City Hall on notice that it’s not business as usual anymore at 121 North LaSalle Street.