Three City Council caucuses join forces on North Branch demands

SHARE Three City Council caucuses join forces on North Branch demands

Chicago City Hall. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

The City Council’s Black, Hispanic and Progressive Caucuses on Thursday merged their political muscle to demand that minorities share in the bonanza of jobs and contracts triggered by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to redevelop the North Branch corridor.

Developers who build residential and retail projects in a 760-acre corridor zoned to protect manufacturing would pay a fee for the privilege, under final guidelines issued this week. The area affected is bounded roughly by the Chicago River on the east, the Kennedy Expressway on the west and Kinzie Street on the south, reaching about as far north as Wrightwood Avenue.

But just paying a fee isn’t good enough to satisfy chairmen of the three caucuses that, together, represent 31 City Council votes. That’s five more votes than would be needed to block approval of the North Branch corridor plan.

They’re demanding that every project in the North Branch corridor have a community benefits agreement attached with a “strict requirement that 66 percent” of all jobs go to blacks and Hispanics and 66 percent of all contracts go to minority-owned businesses. The same goes for professional services.

The chairmen claim it’s only fair at a time when blacks and Hispanics comprise two-thirds of city’s population.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), newly-elected chairman of the Hispanic Caucus, acknowledged that 66 percent is a sky-high place to start.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) has set a lofty goal for minority participation in North Branch corridor projects. |  Sun-Times file photo

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) has set a lofty goal for minority participation in North Branch corridor projects. | Sun-Times file photo

Minority set-asides on city construction projects currently stand at 26 percent for companies owned by minorities and six percent to firms controlled by women.

“It’s just a goal. It’s not set in stone. … When you sell your house, you list it high and you have someplace you’re willing to accept,” Villegas said.

“You start high and there’s room to negotiate. But the bottom line is, our communities have to participate on this once-in-a-lifetime development. You’re talking about several hundred acres of prime real estate. … We welcome that type of development. We just want to make sure our communities are participating.”

Villegas refused to say where he hopes that eventual percentage will land during negotiations with the mayor’s office and local developers.

Nor would he threaten to block City Council approval of the North Side land rush if blacks and Hispanics don’t get a big piece of the job and contracting pie.

“Depending on how the discussions go, that will kind of determine which way we have to move. … We do have the numbers to hold something up,” he said.

Planning and Development Commissioner David Reifman could not be reached for comment on the demands.

Department spokesman Peter Strazzabosco said the North Branch Framework would use two types of developer fees to “foster economic development benefits in other parts of the city.”

“The recommendations are projected to generate thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in private investment within industrial corridors on the West and South sides,” he wrote in an email.

Earlier this week, Reifman said developers who “transition away from manufacturing and do the type of mixed-use environment that the modern technology and jobs market requires” would pay an “industrial corridor fee for that land that is being lost to industrial use.”

Money generated by those fees would be used to accomplish two goals: to bankroll roads, bridges and other infrastructure in areas “transitioning” from heavy manufacturing to lighter uses; and to expand Chicago’s still-thriving manufacturing districts, several of them on the South Side.

On Thursday, Villegas expressed concern that all of those fees would be gobbled up by the infrastructure projects, leaving almost nothing for the industrial areas that still exist on the city’s South and West Sides.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) tried to pin corporation counsel Steve Patton down on a funding level for the proposed new police oversight agency. | Sun-Times file photo

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) said he’s excited about the North Branch corridor’s potential, but wants to make sure blacks and Hispanics benefit from it, too. | Sun-Times file photo

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) chairman of the Black Caucus, said he’s “very excited about this phenomenal, transformative project on the North Side of town.”

But, he argued that blacks and Hispanics need to benefit from it.

“Until we start having these discussions about contracting, we’re gonna continue to get the short end,” he said.

“A closed mouth doesn’t get fed. We have to start making sure we ask for things.”

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), chairman of the Progressive Caucus, said he went along with the 66 percent demand because that’s what the Black and Hispanic caucuses wanted.

“Developers are gonna be coming in and requesting huge increases in density. … The area that could be redeveloped with this change the mayor is making has the potential to add tens of thousands of units. … That’s a whole ‘nother ward,” he said.

“The two caucuses felt it was important to start out that high. … It’ll probably end up being something more like what they negotiate on some of these, which is 25 or 30 percent.”

Last year, the City Council came within one vote of blocking a $3.5 billion O’Hare Airport bond issue, delivering a powerful message about the lack of minority participation on the airport gravy train.

At the time, Sawyer warned that future alliances between the Black, Hispanic and Progressive caucuses could someday create a political roadblock that would force Emanuel’s hand.

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