Chicago’s Planning and Development commissioner calling it quits

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Chicago Planning and Development Commissioner Andy Mooney — who has served under four mayors — announced his resignation Tuesday, continuing the second-term shake-up of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s City Hall cabinet.

After going through the “ordeal” of having both knees replaced four weeks ago, Mooney said it was time for a break. The former runner plans to continue his recovery, travel with his newly-retired wife, then do some consulting work.

Mooney, 63, insisted the decision to call it quits, effective Sept. 1, was his and his alone. Emanuel plans to name a replacement later this summer.

In just nine years in city government, Mooney held a variety of top jobs under four mayors: Jane Byrne, Harold Washington, Richard M. Daley and Emanuel. He served as executive director of the Chicago Housing Authority during the tumultuous reign of controversial CHA Chairman Charles Swibel, then took Swibel’s place after federal housing officials forced Swibel’s resignation.

During Mooney’s five-year tenure as Planning and Development commissioner, four formerly separate government agencies were brought under the Planning and Development umbrella.

“We’ve put together a well-functioning agency doing an enormous amount of work with about one-third of the number of people that the legacy agencies had,” Mooney said Tuesday.

“I became commissioner during the depths of the recession when there wasn’t a construction crane in the air. There are now quite a few cranes in the air. We have a lot of work under way on residential units, hotels and businesses. We came out of the depths of the recession and this department played an instrumental role in helping the city recover and stabilize.”

Mooney spearheaded Emanuel’s drive to reduce the number of food deserts in Chicago, including a Whole Foods under construction in impoverished Englewood. He helped find replacements for all but one of Chicago’s 15 shuttered Dominick’s stores: in South Shore.

“That really is a function of the owner of the property who, for his own purposes, has not been willing to make an economic deal with anyone. We brought him at least half a dozen good prospects. What he’s asking for in rent is just not economic,” Mooney said.

As Emanuel’s point-man on affordable housing, Mooney pushed through a five-year, $1.3 billion plan to build, rehabilitate and preserve more than 40,000 units of affordable housing by 2018. He also helped craft a revised “Affordable Requirements Ordinance” that’s expected to generate more than $90 million for affordable housing over the next five years by imposing dramatically higher fees and construction mandates on developers.

On the development front, Mooney was a driving force behind Emanuel’s plan to use $55 million in tax-increment-financing (TIF) funds to build a controversial basketball arena south of the Loop that will double as an “event center” for McCormick Place.

The project became such a lightning rod, the TIF subsidy was subsequently diverted from stadium construction to land acquisition for a surrounding hotel.

On Tuesday, Mooney insisted that the political heat that Emanuel took will be well worth the effort.

“McCormick Place was looking to fill a hole in their marketing program. It’s a facility they didn’t have, but could use to attract different types of conventions and meetings. At the same time, DePaul had expressed a real interest in moving its sports program back into the city,” Mooney said.

“The valuable thing that’s constantly overlooked is that DePaul is putting at least $70 million into this facility, which is essentially a public facility. We’re getting private money to pay for half of it. And it will be very good for McCormick Place and the South Loop. It’ll be very busy and contribute to the re-invigoration of Motor Row. ”

During the mayoral campaign, Emanuel was hammered for presiding over downtown-centric development that left impoverished neighborhoods behind.

But, Mooney argued Tuesday that the criticism has been unfair.

“It’s a nonsensical statement. Of course the economy is going to be focused downtown. It’s where business does business. If we don’t have a strong downtown economy, we wouldn’t be able to pay for schools and other city services in the neighborhoods. So, it’s not as if neighborhoods don’t share in the economy. Downtown is the primary generator of tax revenue. The neighborhoods participate in that way,” Mooney said.

Pointing to the decline in Chicago’s population reflected in the 2010 U.S. Census, Mooney said: “The city lost a couple hundred thousand people. Where the city has to go is to continue attracting people to live in the city and start absorbing the housing inventory that’s still out there that didn’t make it through the recession. The city needs to become an attractive place for that new and additional population. That will lead them to a more vigorous housing market throughout the city—not just downtown.”

Only then will moribund neighborhood commercial strips make a comeback, Mooney said, adding: “You’ve got to have rooftops, population and disposable income that supports local retail.”

Mooney said he’s not concerned that the array of tax increases that will be required to solve the combined, $30 billion pension crisis at the city and public schools will discourage people from moving to Chicago or trigger an exodus of existing residents.

“The mayor is going to be very judicious in his response to economic issues,” the departing commissioner said.

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