Commissioner Reifman’s farewell: Making a growing Chicago more equitable
As we enter the final days of the Emanuel administration and I prepare to leave my post as commissioner of the Department of Planning & Development, I’m gratified to know that the growth strategies and equitable development projects and policies we implemented will resonate for all of Chicago for years to come.
Our achievements were vast and comprehensive throughout the city, and I’d like to share some brief highlights with thanks and appreciation to all of DPD’s private and public partners.
Under the Mayor, the goal of our equitable development initiatives was to leverage strong markets on behalf of weaker ones, with the signature tool being the 2016 adoption of a new density bonus system for downtown construction projects.
The system enabled additional floorspace to be added to downtown projects in exchange for voluntary financial payments, 80 percent of which is used to support West and South side development projects through the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund (NOF). The remainder is allocated for local infrastructure and citywide landmarks. Since its inception, the system has generated commitments of more than $210 million, of which more than $45 million has been awarded as grants to nearly 200 businesses and community organizations across the South, West and Southwest sides.
While the NOF is designed to primarily support under-served commercial corridors, we applied a similar leverage model to designated industrial corridors as well. The Mayor’s Industrial Modernization Initiative updated the land use designations in several corridors to ensure they continue to serve 21st century market needs.
The initiative led to the strategic de-designation of outmoded Planned Manufacturing District zoning, like in North Branch, and the creation of a “modernization fee” for non-manufacturing zoning projects, resulting in more than $50 million in developer commitments to date that are supporting both traditional and modern industrial investments throughout the city’s industrial ecosystem. The support will reinforce ongoing private investments that have revitalized Pullman and the Calumet corridor’s historic roles as industrial centers, along with other projects that are revitalizing industrial properties on the West, Northwest and North sides.
Chicago’s affordable housing resources also took prominent roles in the last four years, with systemic improvements to City programs through an effective Five-Year Housing Plan that helped reoccupy thousands of vacant units, fostered the rehabilitations of Lathrop Homes and the Rosenwald Apartments; and co-located three new public library branches within affordable housing projects in West Ridge, Irving Park and Little Italy. The Affordable Requirements Ordinance (ARO) also took a more prominent role against gentrification and displacement citywide and in targeted areas. The refinements approximately doubled the on-site affordable requirement for multi-family projects within Logan Square, the Near West and Near North sides, and Pilsen, where more than 170 affordable units will soon be available to moderate-income households.
Other policy improvements include Mayor Emanuel’s 2017 Executive Order that requires Plan Commission projects to seek 26/6% M/WBE hiring, resulting in tens of thousands of additional jobs being allocated to minority- and women-owned businesses. Another new policy involved a series of improvements to the City’s transit-oriented development (TOD) ordinance that made Chicago the first city in the country to extend TOD benefits from train lines to bus lines, and yet another refined the Chicago River Design Guidelines to help ensure the riverfront will continue to cater to people and wildlife long after Mayor Emanuel leaves office.
With these reforms in place, DPD shepherded the planning for several unprecedented “mega projects” that will serve as economic anchors for the entire city. At full buildout, Lincoln Yards, The 78 and the River District will generate more than $15 billion in private investment, billions of dollars in new tax revenue, approximately 4,000 units of affordable housing, nearly $100 million in commitments to the Neighborhood Opportunity Bonus, more than $40 million in industrial modernization fees, and more than 100,000 temporary and permanent jobs.
Meanwhile, dozens of smaller projects moved forward across the city, including four full-service grocery stores in South Side food deserts; multiple, mixed-use projects in Woodlawn and Washington Park; The Hatchery food incubator in Garfield Park; and of course the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park. These investments will help the city to create and maintain jobs and growth for decades to come.
While much of our work focused on the future, we also embraced the past through a contemporary approach to historic preservation that went beyond bricks and mortar to include sites and structures with social, cultural and ethnic significance. Highlights include multiple landmark designations with African-American significance, including Stone Temple Baptist Church in North Lawndale; the Loop’s Johnson Publishing building; and Bronzeville’s DuSable High School. Other landmark efforts include the proposed Pilsen Historic District on the Lower West Side, the Fulton Market District on the Near West Side, and the Rainbow Pylons in Boystown.
Meanwhile, the mayor’s focus on some of Chicago’s largest white elephants produced viable redevelopment plans for the historic Old Post Office downtown, along with the Uptown and Congress theaters in Uptown and Logan Square.
I’d also like to recognize the Mayor’s success reforming the City’s most significant economic development tool: Tax Increment Financing. The administration ensured more than 85 percent of all TIF expenditures were neighborhood improvements that largely involved public infrastructure, transit facilities, schools and municipal facilities, and other public benefits. With more than $1 billion in TIF being surplussed to local taxing bodies since 2011, in addition to two dozen repealed and terminated TIF districts, the mayor’s use of the program was exemplary, transparent, and directly responsive to local needs.
My best wishes go out to Mayor-Elect Lightfoot, the new City Council, and my eventual successors at the Departments of Planning & Development and Housing. They have at their disposal an incredibly talented and committed staff who work tirelessly to make Chicago a stronger, more vibrant city for all its citizens.
Finally, I want to thank Mayor Emanuel for asking me to take this job four years ago. This has been without question the most personally and professionally rewarding position I have ever had, and I will be forever grateful to him for giving me this unique opportunity to serve the city I have called home for my entire life.
David L. Reifman