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Rahm cancels votes on Lincoln Yards, ‘The 78,’ but one alderman wants to proceed

Artist's original rendering of the Lincoln Yards development along the North Branch of the Chicago River, unveiled in July. | Sterling Bay

Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot on Monday appeared to have won her first of many showdowns with the City Council, but the victory may be short-lived.

At Lightfoot’s behest, Mayor Rahm Emanuel postponed for at least 48 hours votes to approve $1.6 billion in tax increment financing subsidies to unlock the development potential of two massive projects: Lincoln Yards and “The 78.”

“I made it very clear to the mayor-elect that I would not move forward on these projects if she wanted to delay the process,” Emanuel said in a statement.

“While I firmly believe in the value of these projects to the entire city, out of respect for her wishes and request, I will honor my commitment and delay the vote.”

Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd), whose ward includes the $6 billion Lincoln Yards project, urged his colleagues to ignore the wishes of both the incoming and retiring mayors and vote anyway.

“I don’t consider it defying [Emanuel and Lightfoot]. I consider it acting as a legislative body,” Hopkins said.

“I believe we have enough votes to pass this in committee and pass this on the floor of the City Council. … Let’s count them.”

Hopkins is not a member of the Finance Committee. Even if he wanted to call for the vote, he couldn’t. Somebody else would have to make that motion for him.

The alderman told reporters that several of his colleagues had agreed to do that for him.

But, minutes later, Finance Committee Chairman Pat O’Connor (40th) arrived in the City Council chambers to say he would honor the wishes of Emanuel and Lightfoot — at least temporarily.

“We will, hopefully, not take any action today, after which we will recess the meeting until Wednesday morning, hoping that the 48 hours between now and then will allow representatives of both the mayor’s office and the mayor-elect’s office to determine if there’s been enough information given to allow the projects to move forward at that time,” O’Connor said.

Aldermen Anthony Beale (left) and Brian Hopkins (center) huddle with the Finance Committee chairman, Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th) at Monday’s committee meeting. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times
Aldermen Anthony Beale (left) and Brian Hopkins (center) huddle with the Finance Committee chairman, Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th) at Monday’s committee meeting. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

The Finance Committee then proceeded to take testimony from Planning and Development Commissioner David Reifman and Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld. Both already have testified at countless community hearings on both projects.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) was the first alderman to endorse Lightfoot. He’s likely to play a pivotal role in the new administration — either as Lightfoot’s floor leader, Finance chairman or both.

Waguespack was asked to assess the political ramifications if aldermen dared to defy the new mayor.

“It puts the council and it puts this new mayor on bad footing if these two TIFs pass today,” Waguespack said.

“If they start off on a bad foot, it could” set the tone for a contentious relationship between the new mayor and the new and more progressive City Council, Waguespack said.

It’s unclear what, if anything, would change between now and Wednesday.

Lightfoot told the Chicago Sun-Times on Friday that the city could get a better deal for Lincoln Yards by increasing the number of affordable housing units, reducing City Hall’s $900 million tax increment financing subsidy or both.

The mayor-elect said then 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.

She had hinted strongly she might ask O’Connor to call off Monday’s vote.

On Sunday night, Lightfoot did just that by urging aldermen to turn Monday’s showdown vote into a “subject matter hearing” — meaning, there would be no vote.

She said her major concerns on both mega-projects include “consequences for other TIF districts, affordable housing options, plans for minority- and women-owned businesses, and impacts on diversity, population density, schools, traffic, and other factors.”

O’Connor has argued aldermen would be doing Lightfoot a favor by dispatching both mega-projects before she takes office because of the gravy train of revenue Lincoln Yards and the 78 would generate.

For months, Emanuel has pressured aldermen to get both projects over the finish line before he leaves office May 20. He’s concerned that, if he doesn’t, two of the biggest projects in Chicago history could be in jeopardy.

But the mayor apparently decided that deferring to his successor — at least for a couple of days — was more important than forging ahead.

That’s particularly true because Lightfoot has made it clear she has no desire to stop the mega-projects. She simply wants to take more time to negotiate a better deal with developers Sterling Bay at Lincoln Yards and Related Midwest at The 78, a huge parcel at South Clark Street and Roosevelt Road.

“It if really is such a great deal, it will stand up to the smell test of Mayor-elect Lightfoot and my colleagues joining us next month,” said Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), who endorsed Lightfoot and raised money for her.

Hours into the meeting, Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd) declared his intention to call for a vote on Lincoln Yards.

Munoz backed off after O’Connor noted that there were only four aldermen left in the chambers, well short of a quorum, and that, if Munoz insisted on a vote, the meeting would have to be adjourned.