Lori Lightfoot says city can get a better deal from Lincoln Yards developer

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Chicago can reach a better deal with the developer of the $6 billion Lincoln Yards project, Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot said Friday — by increasing the number of affordable housing units, reducing City Hall’s $900 million tax-increment-financing subsidy or both.

Lightfoot told the Chicago Sun-Times that her staff would spend the weekend poring over the 600-page agreement that calls for the city to reimburse developer Sterling Bay for infrastructure work needed for the massive North Side development.

Those projects include wider roads, revamped intersections, new bridges, a new Clybourn Metra station and a “multimodal corridor” that could include “high-capacity buses.”

Depending on what she hears back, Lightfoot hinted strongly she might ask Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), chairman of the Chicago City Council Finance Committee, to call off a planned vote Monday on the city subsidy for Lincoln Yards.

“I want to understand the contract,” Lightfoot said. “It’s 600 pages. So I’ve got a team of lawyers that are tearing that apart now and looking at it. We’ll make our decision over the weekend.

“I want to make sure that we’re getting the best possible deal for the city going forward and that we’re not hamstrung on other great economic development needs on the South and West Side.”

To appease residents concerned about aesthetics and congestion, Sterling Bay already has made changes to its plans for the project, which has the potential to transform the North Side. A proposed soccer stadium was scrapped. So was a proposed entertainment district. The size of a proposed park was doubled. Instead of building two bridges over the Chicago River, Sterling Bay has agreed to build three.

Instead of building 300 units of affordable housing, Sterling Bay now is proposing 600.

The height and density of the project were reduced, too.

Also, under the original plan, the huge, mixed-use project was to total 15 million square feet, including an 800-foot tower and five buildings in the range of 600 to 700 feet tall. Now, Sterling Bay’s plans call for no building to exceed 600 feet, and the total size will be capped at 14.5 million square feet.

Those concessions were brokered by Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) with a nudge from Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has pressured the city council to sign off on the project before he leaves office in May.

Lightfoot said those changes are not enough.

“Of course, we can get more” affordable housing units on site, Lightfoot said.

Asked whether she plans to ask O’Connor to take the Lincoln Yards TIF off the agenda for Monday’s finance committee hearing unless Sterling Bay agrees to build more than 600 units of affordable housing, Lightfoot said: “That’s not the only thing that I’m concerned about. There are a number of things that I’m concerned about.”

She wouldn’t discuss specifics.

“We’ve had some preliminary discussions with the mayor and his team about them,” Lightfoot said. “And we’re gonna see if we can get some of those issues resolved. If not, then I’ll be very public about what my views are on it. But it’s not for here and now.”

Sarah Hamilton, former communications director for Emanuel and now Sterling Bay’s spokeswoman, would not comment.

An artist’s rendering of the proposed Lincoln Yards development. | Sterling Bay

An artist’s rendering of the proposed Lincoln Yards development. | Sterling Bay

Hopkins, whose ward includes the proposed development, reacted angrily to Lightfoot’s assertion that City Hall can get a better deal from Sterling Bay.

“I’ve been intimately involved in every detail of negotiating this deal for months,” Hopkins said. “For someone to come in at the 11th hour who hasn’t been involved in it to say, ‘I could have done better’ is unfair. It shows a lack of respect for how this process has played out.”

Hopkins said there’s a good reason the council has had a series of votes so far supporting the plans for Lincoln Yards and why Monday’s vote on the city’s subsidy is the final hurdle.

“It’s the right thing to do for Chicago,” the alderman said. “That’s why we have the votes to pass it.

“My colleagues who support this do so because of the jobs it’ll bring. Because of the economic development. Because of the affordable housing, which is the largest amount of affordable housing units provided by a single project on the North Side in recent history. And all of the other benefits that will be provided for the neighborhood.”

The proposed $900 million tax subsidy to reimburse Sterling Bay for infrastructure work has been controversial, coming at a time the city is facing a $1 billion rise in pension payments.

“We’re not subsidizing them,” Hopkins said. “They’re spending nearly $300 million of their own money on infrastructure improvements in addition to the TIF money. They’re spending $150 million to build affordable housing out of their own pocket that they won’t be reimbursed for. They’re subsidizing the public good.”

Ald. Brian Hopkins says, “The city council is poised to approve it because it’s the right thing to do. And we’re gonna move forward.” | Sun-Times files

Ald. Brian Hopkins says, “The city council is poised to approve it because it’s the right thing to do. And we’re gonna move forward.” | Sun-Times files

If Lightfoot thinks she can negotiate a better deal, Hopkins said, “She has four years to impress us all with how she can put a better development deal together in different parts of the city.

“I hope she can. I’m eager to stand with her and to support her,” he said. “But we did this deal. The city council is poised to approve it because it’s the right thing to do. And we’re gonna move forward.”

O’Connor, who lost his reelection bid Tuesday, has said the council would be doing Lightfoot a favor by dispatching with the $900 million subsidy for Lincoln Yards and a proposed $700 million subsidy for the massive South Loop project being marketed as “The 78” before she takes office next month.

“I think the mayor-elect might be happy for the cash infusion coming in over the course of the next 20 years from those potential projects,” O’Connor has said.

David Reifman, Emanuel’s planning and development commissioner, has warned against delaying approval of the city subsidies until after the new mayor takes office.

“A site like this is one of the main reasons why Chicago was so competitive in the Amazon bid,” Reifman told the council’s zoning committee last month. “These sites are absolutely critical as we consider our fiscal issues and our need to grow our tax base without increasing the burden on existing residents and businesses.

“Pension funds, insurance companies, institutions and other investors who are the key to solving these issues with us are looking at what we’re doing here today with a site like this and assessing whether Chicago continues to be a good place to invest.”

The finance committee also is set to vote Monday on the city subsidy for The 78, so named by the developers of the proposed project at Roosevelt Road and Clark Street because it would create Chicago’s 78th neighborhood.

Eight newly-elected aldermen in opposition to both TIFs Saturday released a statement calling on O’Connor to delay Monday’s vote. Those aldermen are: Daniel La Spata (1st), Jeanette Taylor (20th), Michael Rodriguez (22nd), Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th), Rossana Sanchez (33rd); Andre Vasquez (40th); Matt Martin (47th) and Maria Hadden (49th).

The newly created Roosevelt/Clark TIF is expected to generate at least $700 million to bankroll job-training and infrastructure improvements needed to provide access to the long-vacant site.

Those plans include: extending Wells Street to Wentworth Avenue, moving and enclosing Metra tracks running along Clark Street 300 feet to the west, extending 15th Street into the site to connect with Wells, building a new Taylor Street bridge and putting in a new CTA Red Line stop at 15th and State streets.

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