After a flurry of confusion about whether the scheduled hearing would even take place, Chicago’s zoning committee voted 9-4 Thursday to advance the $6 billion Lincoln Yards megaproject, bringing plans for a mini-downtown on the North Side one step closer to reality.
The City Council’s zoning committee vote came after four hours of discussion and testimony from the public.
In an unusual move, the acting chair of the committee, Ald. James Cappleman, was one of the no votes.
At the opening of the hearing, citing last-minute changes to the plan and saying “there’s still so much to digest, especially for a project that is this broad,” Cappleman moved to defer consideration of the project. But he was quickly outmaneuvered by committee members who supported the plan. They voted to continue with the hearing, and testimony proceeded.
The project would create an entirely new neighborhood on a 54-acre, historically industrial site straddling the Chicago River, west of Lincoln Park. Developer Sterling Bay already owns the land and is seeking to build skyscrapers, 6,000 units of housing, and an 11-acre park. The developer wants to attract retail and corporate headquarters.
Opponents have been calling for all votes on the megaproject to be delayed until after the election. Both mayoral candidates have said they want to see further consideration of the plan.
Also voting no today was 47th Ward Alderman Amaya Pawar, who said the city was missing a real opportunity. “On developments of this scale we should require 25, 35, 40 percent affordable [housing],” he said. Other “no” votes included 33rd Ward Alderman Deb Mell and 12th Ward Alderman George Cardenas. Cappleman and Mell are both in runoff elections.
2nd Ward Ald. Brian Hopkins, whose ward includes the Lincoln Yards site, told zoning committee members today the project is not being rushed. He said he first began meeting with community members to talk about a new use for the Finkl Steel site in 2016.
“At every step of the way we have had involvement from the neighborhood,” said Hopkins, who over the last 48 hours announced a series of changes to address concerns raised about the project.
On Tuesday, Hopkins announced affordable housing that had been planned for the surrounding area would be built on-site instead. Wednesday night, Hopkins announced maximum building heights would be reduced from 650 to 600 feet. And just a few hours before the zoning hearing Thursday morning, Hopkins said Sterling Bay had agreed to annual community meetings.
“Even after approval is granted today, this developer will have to come back for repeated community hearings and review from my neighborhood and from this body as we go forward to make sure every promise is kept, every pledge is adhered to, and everything they say they’re going to do they do on time and they do in the proper sequence,” said Hopkins. “That is now mandated for them to move forward.”
Opponents continued to call the project “corporate welfare,” referring to the $1.3 billion in TIF funds the city is poised to deliver for infrastructure in the area.
Speaking to reporters before the hearing, activist Andrea Ortiz said communities are repeatedly told there is no money for schools, mental health clinics or other neighborhood investments. It’s not that the city lacks money, said Ortiz, but “it’s going to luxury spending like Lincoln Yards. Lincoln Yards that is not being built for low-income people of color or working families. Lincoln Yards that is just another luxury playground for the rich.”
Those who testified in favor of the project said it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to turn fallow industrial land into a neighborhood that generates jobs and taxes.
Thursday's vote was one of several final hurdles the massive project must get over to move forward. It moves next to the finance committee before being taken up by the full City Council.
Linda Lutton covers Chicago's neighborhoods for WBEZ. Follow her @lindalutton.