Lame-Duck Aldermen Poised To Approve Subsidies For Megaprojects

Lincoln Yards rendering 2
Artist rendering of the Lincoln Yards project. Courtesy of Sterling Bay
Lincoln Yards rendering 2
Artist rendering of the Lincoln Yards project. Courtesy of Sterling Bay

Lame-Duck Aldermen Poised To Approve Subsidies For Megaprojects

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Lincoln Yards, the $6-billion megaproject that seeks to build a new minicity between Lincoln Park and Bucktown, was an election issue far beyond the confines of the 2nd Ward where it’s located.

Both mayoral candidates argued the project should be delayed. 

“There hasn’t been enough transparency around the transportation impacts, the infrastructure impacts, what’s going to be the impacts on the local schools,” Lori Lightfoot said during a candidates forum on WTTW in late March before winning the April 2 runoff election. 

She repeatedly called for decisions on Lincoln Yards to be made by the next mayor and Chicago City Council. 

Five miles north of the project, in the 40th Ward, Ald.-elect Andre Vasquez said Lincoln Yards resonated as a campaign issue. 

“The second you mentioned Lincoln Yards project, people would have a flashback of the parking-meter deal or the Wintrust Arena or any of these other projects where their money is being given away,” said Vasquez, a Democratic Socialist who beat 36-year incumbent Ald. Patrick O’Connor.

Ending subsidies for the well-off was a big part of Vasquez’s platform. 

“We need to stop giving megadevelopers and corporations tax breaks and tax money to come do something they would do anyway,” he said. “What we should be able to say is, ‘Since you’re going to come here and profit from our city, you should be investing in it.’”

But finalizing Lincoln Yards and The 78, another massive development planned along the Chicago River between the South Loop and Chinatown, has been a priority for Mayor Rahm Emanuel. O’Connor, the mayor’s floor leader in the City Council and chairman of the powerful finance committee, has called for a vote Monday on two massive tax increment financing (TIF) districts for the areas, in one of the final hurdles needed to seal The 78 and Lincoln Yards deals.

The two TIFs will cost taxpayers around $1.8 billion. That includes $900 million for bridges, roadway reconstruction and riverwalls in Lincoln Yards and up to $400 million more in interest payments and finance charges on “TIF Notes” the city expects to issue. A second TIF will authorize $551 million for infrastructure in The 78.

Fully 25 percent of aldermen on the finance committee are either leaving their jobs next month — many, like O’Connor, booted out by voters — or they’re caught up in current corruption scandals.

Finance committee members on their way out include Alds. Joe Moreno, Toni Foulkes, Rick Munoz, Margaret Laurino, John Arena, Joe Moore and possibly Leslie Hairston (her race is still too close to call). 

Ald. Ed Burke is charged with attempted extortion and has conflicts of interest on both TIFs. Ald. Willie Cochran just pleaded guilty to public corruption and resigned.

The 78 is located entirely in the 25th Ward, but constituents there have essentially been without an alderman for months. Ald. Danny Solis, also a member of the finance committee, has not been seen since it was reported he was wearing a wire and allegedly traded City Hall favors for Viagra and sex acts.

A spokesman from the mayor’s office, Matt McGrath, said the vote should go forward. The mayor and aldermen are elected to four-year terms, he said. They don’t stop working a month early.

He said Lincoln Yards and The 78 have been through years of planning and community involvement, and it’s time to vote. 

“We’re looking forward to these projects taking the next step forward and contributing to Chicago’s growth and vibrancy for decades to come, as well as creating tens of thousands of jobs,” McGrath said.

Former Chicago alderman and University of Illinois at Chicago political science professor Dick Simpson said widespread calls for more scrutiny of Lincoln Yards should be taken seriously. TIFs last 23 years.

“Once it’s locked in, it’s hard to undo,” said Simpson. “It’s not impossible, but it’s hard.”

Lightfoot did not respond to questions about whether she’ll reiterate her call for decisions on the TIFs to be delayed.

For Vasquez, the election results mean “it should all grind to a halt.”

“When we’re that close to having a new council, a new mayor, to try to do this rush job is not in the best interest of anyone in the city, except those who have been benefiting from these kinds of deals,” he said.

If the TIFs pass the finance committee vote Monday, the full City Council — the final hurdle for the projects — will consider them Wednesday.

Chicagoans who oppose subsidizing the megadevelopments — including parks and green space advocates, religious leaders, small business owners, taxpayer advocates and schools activists — are planning protests both days.

Linda Lutton covers Chicago’s neighborhoods for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @lindalutton.