Thirty-six years ago, when I moved to Chicago, the old lefties used to tell me the political and corporate chieftains were like a secret cartel that had crafted a rich-get-richer scheme of development that would shape the city for years to come.
They were talking specifically about Chicago 21, a plan put together in 1973 by a consortium of movers and shakers including Mayor Richard J. Daley and various honchos from big oil, banking, and utility concerns. Their plan was to concentrate development downtown and in such outlying communities as the South Loop, Chinatown, and the near west and near north sides so that the middle class would be lured back to town.
Those old lefties had a point. For better or worse, the Chicago 21 plan is still very much alive, as evidenced by the city’s Amazon bid, in which Mayor Emanuel and Governor Rauner have teamed up to offer CEO Jeff Bezos, one of the world’s wealthiest people, a $2.25 billion incentive package to build a second headquarters, aka HQ2, in one of ten locations in Chicago and the suburbs, including eight sites in and around downtown.
Even though there are hundreds of vacant lots all over Chicago’s south and west sides, the city’s leaders are again concentrating development on the same central communities, with maybe a crumb or two falling to the rest of us who help foot the bill. Call it trickle-down development.
I’ll give old man Daley and his pals this: They were reacting to demographic challenges far greater than those Rahm or Rauner must confront. In the early 1970s, the middle class was picking up and fleeing to the suburbs as the city’s industrial base was crumbling.
Chicago’s on firmer ground today. Still, the mayor and governor are offering billions to get one of the world’s richest companies to move to the richest part of town. It’s like affirmative action for people who never needed it in the first place.
I was thinking about this as I found an old photocopy of the Chicago 21 plan in a folder at the back of my file cabinet. The section on Cabrini-Green is particularly revealing. Back then, the Chicago Housing Authority project around Division and Orleans was packed with thousands of residents. The Chicago 21 planners realized upscale development in the area would be hampered by a complex of government- subsidized residences. Yet they were astute enough to realize they couldn’t call for its demolition without setting off a firestorm of protest.
So they assured Cabrini-Green residents that “in no case should [development] result in displacement of existing residents for financial or other reasons.”
Obviously, the city broke that promise years ago, when it demolished the project’s high- rises and scattered most of the residents to the wind. I suspect Rahm and Rauner will be much more accommodating when it comes to keeping whatever promises they make to Amazon. Tearing down Cabrini-Green ignited a real estate boom that’s turned that area into one of the most expensive in Chicago.
Not surprisingly, Chicago’s HQ2 bid offers Amazon two sites not far from the former housing development. There’s the Lincoln Yards site, largely owned by the Sterling Bay development firm, on the banks of the Chicago River between North and roughly Fullerton. And there’s the so-called River District, a large swath of industrial land at Chicago and Halsted that includes the Freedom Center, the Tribune’s printing plant.
Each site in Chicago’s Amazon bid tells a story about the wheeling and dealing of powerful people. And the River District gives me an opportunity to shed a little light on the recent history of the outfit formerly known as the Tribune Company—a tale almost as convoluted as a TIF deal.
In 2014, the Tribune Company split into two parts: Tribune Media owns the TV stations, WGN radio, and real estate holdings; Tribune Publishing owns the newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. In May, Sinclair Broadcasting Group agreed to buy Tribune Media for $3.9 billion (the deal hinges on federal approval). Sinclair’s a pro-Trump operation that uses its 191 television stations to broadcast a message that’s a little to the right of, oh, Mussolini. I jest—sort of. The point is Sinclair is known for slipping “hardline political content between local weather, high school sports, and city council reporting,” as Mother Jones recently put it.
If the deal goes through, Sinclair would own the land in the River District. So when you think of all the crummy things that could come from Amazon taking Rahm and Rauner’s offer—such as billions being diverted from schools and police, property taxes rising, and the city becoming even more expensive—consider this: Your tax dollars may give Sinclair even more money to amplify its pro-Trump gospel. Just in time for the 2020 presidential election.
Wait, there’s more! My old boss, Michael Ferro—once the chairman of Wrapports, the previous owner of the Reader and Sun-Times—has a controlling stake in Tribune Publishing, which he last year renamed Tronc.
Tronc has a long-term lease with Tribune Media to use the printing plant. So Sinclair or Tribune Media can’t sell to Bezos without making Ferro whole on that lease arrangement.
So, yes, folks, your tax dollars may wind up going to Bezos, Sinclair, and Ferro. As much as those lefties loved to bash Chicago 21, I don’t think old man Daley and his corporate pals ever envisioned things working out quite like this. v