As part of his campaign to convince the public that the mayor really cares about neighborhoods other than downtown Chicago, planning commissioner David Reifman came to the City Club Thursday to unveil a plan for “equity and balance” in development.
To let everyone know this was a big deal, Emanuel showed up to introduce Reifman.
In his remarks—which featured a few strained jokes—the mayor noted that “David was a very successful zoning lawyer with maybe some clients in this room” before he went to work for the city last year.
It’s true. For years, Reifman was a zoning lawyer for DLA Piper, specializing in TIF-funded deals.
TIF, of course, is the city’s Tax Increment Financing program, in which the mayor slaps a surcharge on your property tax bill and uses the money to fund just about anything he wants.
The mayor chooses to spend much of that money in the wealthiest neighborhoods in and around the Loop, even though the TIF program is supposed to help poor neighborhoods—an inequity and imbalance that the mayor seems in no hurry to eradicate.
When it was Reifman’s turn to speak, he began—as most mayoral appointees do—by thanking Emanuel for doing such a wonderful job of being the mayor.
Glad we settled that.
He then moved on to discuss a few highlights from the mayor’s newly launched efforts on the equity-and-balance front.
First up—the recently-launched Neighborhood Opportunity Fund, which Reifman referred to as “a cousin of the TIF program.”
As if that’s going to reassure anyone it’s a good idea.
With the opportunity fund, the mayor proposes to slap a fee on downtown developers who get city approval to construct a building that’s taller than what the current zoning allows.
In the parlance of zoning lawyers, this is called “an upzoning.” Generally, it means more money for the developers, because they get to build more square-footage for their buck.
From a public relations perspective, the mayor’s challenge is to convince the public that more money for downtown developers is good for the rest of us.
Along these lines, Reifman said the administration hopes to raise about $10 million a year through these neighborhood opportunity fees, which the mayor will spend in poor neighborhoods like Austin, North Lawndale, and Englewood.
I should mention that one TIF deal in 2012 showered about $29.5 million on developers who were building an upscale office tower in River North. So Austin, North Lawndale, Englewood and all the other many poor neighborhoods in Chicago have a long way to go before they catch up on the opportunity fund goodies that Cousin TIF gave just one building in the richest corner of town.
From there, Reifman discussed how the mayor plans to “reform” the city’s planned manufacturing districts, including the one on the north side that includes the shuttered Finkl Steel site.
This has emerged as one of my favorite topics, as I recently figured out that the city’s gerrymandered ward map conveniently stuffed almost all of the north side’s industrial properties into the bizarrely drawn Second Ward.
Putting all these north-side manufacturers into one ward makes it easier for Mayor Rahm to upzone them out of existence so they can be replaced with retail or residential developments.
Reifman assured his listeners that the mayor’s PMD initiative was not just about development the Finkl Steel site.
How many people in the lunch time crowd believed him?
My guess is that it’s more than the number who believed the mayor when he said he had nothing to do with firing Troy LaRaviere, the outspoken former Blaine Elementary School principal. Or that he didn’t see the Laquan McDonald video before the rest of us did.
So I guess you can call this issue progress on the mayor’s believability front.
Finally, Reifman talked about some of the big development projects on the horizon, including the deal to turn 62 acres of undeveloped South Loop wilderness just south of Roosevelt and Clark into a conglomeration of townhouses, condos, offices, and shops.
The mayor recently announced that Related Midwest—a very successful local developer—had “acquired a stake in the site” and “will serve as master developer.”
Today’s Tribune was a little more specific. It pointed out that the property, “once owned by disgraced and convicted powerbroker Tony Rezko, was sold in 2007 to Luxembourg-based General Mediterranean Holding. GMH is owned by Iraqi-born British businessman Nadhmi Auchi, who was convicted in 2003 in France in a corruption scandal. GMH will be a partner with Related Midwest in the joint venture.”
Apparently, part of Reifman’s job includes enthusiastically endorsing this project as a boon for humanity without mentioning Rezko, Auchi, or GMH. A mission he accomplished with flying colors at the city club luncheon.
Reifman did point out that Curt Bailey—president of Related Midwest—was sitting in the audience.
Then he revealed that for the last few weeks, either he or Mayor Emanuel had called Bailey almost every single day for updates on the project.
That’s a pretty staggering amount of attention for one developer.
In contrast, Emanuel never met with mental health activists—though they begged him for a meeting—before he closed the six city clinics that served the poor and underdeveloped communities he now swears he wants to help.
So here’s my advice to activists: go make yourself a fortune in real estate and you’ll have no trouble getting a meeting with the mayor.
Enjoy your equity and balance, Chicago.