How Mayor Rahm Emanuel Transformed Chicago’s Skyline
Chicago mayors have had a long history of controlling development, with City Hall treating real estate like a game of SimCity.
From Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago to Mayor Richard J. Daley’s expressways to Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Plan for Transformation, the mayor plays a critical role in shaping the city’s skyline.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel was no exception. He was hyper-focused on preparing Chicago for a future where cities across the world compete for businesses, jobs and development.
Much of this work occured in his second term under the leadership of David Reifman, the commissioner for the Department of Planning and Development.
Emanuel recruited Reifman from one of the top zoning law firms in the world: DLA Piper. The former zoning attorney streamlined the application process for development and overhauled decades-old laws that determine what can be built and where.
Under Emanuel, Chicago saw the expansion of its downtown core. That brought density to neighborhoods outside the Loop that had never seen more than a four-flat. That has also prompted Emanuel critics to complain that development and gentrification in some neighborhoods is pricing longtime residents out.
At the same time, Emanuel sold off or relocated city-owned buildings on the city’s periphery.
In 2015, to help fill a budget hole, Emanuel sold city-owned surface parking lots in River North. He sold a vehicle maintenance yard on the North Branch of the Chicago River to Englewood.
To allow for some of these changes, City Hall overhauled the zoning code so real estate developers could build taller and bigger — if they paid a fee. A majority of those developer dollars helped support a new spread-the-wealth fund that offers local businesses in struggling commercial corridors much-needed seed money. That fund generated nearly $70 million since its inception, mainly from real estate projects in Fulton Market, the Loop and South Loop.
But the biggest change in the city’s skyline may not be fully realized for generations: the redesign of the city’s riverfront.
Emanuel often called it the city’s “second waterfront.” Soon megadevelopments like Lincoln Yards on the North Branch and The 78 on the South Branch will tower over the Chicago River.
Claudia Morell covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her @claudiamorell.