Updated at 7:30 p.m.
A high-stakes, controversial vote on subsidies for two major real estate projects in Chicago was scrapped Monday after Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot urged a delay.
The powerful finance committee was slated to consider two TIFs that would fund mega-developments Lincoln Yards on the North Side and The 78 near the South Loop.
Finance committee chairman Ald. Patrick O’Connor, 40th Ward, said he was putting off action on the Lincoln Yards and The 78 proposals until Wednesday, an announcement that prompted cheers from the gallery. The committee had been scheduled to vote on nearly $2 billion in taxpayer subsidies for infrastructure improvements in the area around the megaprojects, including new bridges, widened roads and seawalls along the Chicago River.
In what seemed to be a surprise for both activists and aldermen, Emanuel released a statement Monday morning agreeing to delay votes on the TIFs. He said he had told Lightfoot at their first meeting he would not move forward with the projects if she wanted to delay the process.
The mayor’s announcement came after Lightfoot issued a statement late Sunday night calling for further discussion and no vote.
“From day one, I have raised concerns about these deals and the deeply flawed process that has led us to this moment,” Lightfoot’s statement said. She had called during her campaign for decisions on Lincoln Yards to be left to the new mayor and City Council. A block of eight incoming aldermen have also called for the vote on the megaprojects to be canceled. Lightfoot and the newly elected City Council members take office next month.
Lightfoot said the committee should address outstanding questions about “affordable housing options, plans for minority- and women-owned businesses, and impacts on diversity, population density, schools, traffic, and other factors.”
And address them they did — for five hours — with aldermen asking questions and David Reifman, head of the Department of Planning and Development and a cheerleader for the project, answering.
Ald. Leslie Hairston, 5th Ward, questioned how the Lincoln Yards area, on prime real estate along the Chicago River and sandwiched between two of the most affluent neighborhoods in the city, could be considered “blighted,” a prerequisite for consideration as a TIF district.
“Just because it’s vacant does not make it ‘blighted,’” said Hairston. “If you want to look at blight, I’ve got several areas in my ward.”
Reifman responded by pointing out photos of the Lincoln Yards site. “As you can see, this is vacant, unutilized, infrastructure-less land,” said Reifman. Hairston told him there’s a big difference between a multimillion-dollar vacant lot and a $25 vacant lot. “There’s no way that you can make me think that this is blighted,” said Hairston, “and I don’t think it goes with the intent of the TIF law.”
Reifman suggested at several points the city could lose the development altogether. “Capital can go anywhere. They don’t have to come to Chicago. They can look at the decisions we make today and say, ‘You know what? We can go anywhere in the world.’” He said Lincoln Yards developer Sterling Bay is investing $300 million in infrastructure improvements unreimbursed. He said the TIF-funded improvements, which the developer will complete and the city will reimburse later, likely by issuing “TIF Notes,” will help the entire “region.”
Ald. Brian Hopkins, whose 2nd Ward includes Lincoln Yards, said putting off the vote was the wrong thing to do. “Just like when New York City walked away from Amazon and said ‘No thank you, we don’t want all those jobs.’ And there’s a backlash to that today, there’s an outcry when people realize what folly that is. I won’t let that happen here.” Hopkins called opponents “misguided and misinformed” and touted the 10,000 construction jobs and 23,000 permanent jobs the Lincoln Yards development is expected to generate.
Many trade unions and construction groups spoke in favor of the two projects Monday.
At the close of five hours of testimony from aldermen and dozens of comments from the public, finance committee chair Pat O’Connor tabled a vote on the two TIFs for Wednesday morning.
“I don’t have a clue if anything will be different, I just wanted to give the mayor elect an opportunity to have people here for the testimony, hear what’s being said,” he said.
He said the final call is up to Lightfoot.
“If the mayor-elect continues to not want these things to be passed, they will not be brought up,” O’Connor said.
Dozens of people signed up to address the committee.
The full city council could vote on the TIFs Wednesday if the finance committee gives a thumbs up that morning.