Did Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot make a rookie mistake by diving into the controversy over $1.6 billion in tax-increment-financing subsidies for Lincoln Yards and “The 78”?
Would she have been better off expressing her concerns without asking the City Council to hold off?
Wouldn’t it have been wiser to let Mayor Rahm Emanuel bear the burden of those record subsidies, while Lightfoot tries to extract her pound of flesh on the back end?
Those questions were being asked and answered in the corridors of City Hall on Tuesday as aldermen braced for a potential showdown vote that could defy both the retiring and incoming mayors.
The City Council’s Finance Committee is scheduled to reconvene at 9 a.m. Wednesday to consider the TIF subsidies needed to reimburse the developers — Sterling Bay for Lincoln Yards and Related Midwest for “The 78” — for a host of infrastructure projects necessary to develop both sites.
“Personally, I would have let the Emanuel administration wear the jacket in case something unfortunate were to happen” with either project, said Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th), who endorsed Lightfoot over Toni Preckwinkle.
“When you’re the mayor, there are all kinds of levers that can be pulled. … There would have been opportunities to turn the screws to make them do a little bit more or make sure they’re doing” all kinds of things — from affordable housing to minority contracting and hiring.
Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd), whose ward includes the $6 billion Lincoln Yards project, said he is “puzzled by” Lightfoot’s strategy.
“It doesn’t seem to make any sense. She hasn’t specifically stated what changes she would support in either Lincoln Yards or the 78. She has criticized a process she had zero involvement in and doesn’t have any knowledge of. And if that’s really the only problem, then there’s no reason for further delay,” he said.
Yet another alderman, who asked to remain anonymous, noted Lightfoot appeared prepared to let both projects sail through the City Council until last week.
That’s when the Chicago Sun-Times quoted Finance Committee Chairman Pat O’Connor (40th) as saying the votes were there to approve both subsidies and that it was full speed ahead unless Lightfoot called a halt to the vote.
That gave opponents of both subsidies on the political left an opening to lobby Lightfoot to take advantage of O’Connor’s polite overture by urging the City Council to postpone the vote.
Sunday night, Lightfoot “took the bait” by urging the City Council to call a halt to Monday’s vote, the alderman said.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel quickly obliged for fear of looking like he was “rolling over” his successor.
That leaves Lightfoot in a political box.
The 48-hour recess O’Connor provided is nowhere near enough to cut a better deal or confront Lightfoot’s concerns — which, she has said, 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.”
But, if she doesn’t change her mind and declare her definitive support for both projects, she risks having the City Council forge ahead over her objections. That could leave her looking weakened before even taking office.
Unless there is a “definitive no” from Lightfoot that goes beyond the statement she issued on Sunday night, Scott said he is prepared to support both TIF subsidies.
“We’re continuing to search for revenue. We’re continuing to bring projects that are gonna attract people back to Chicago. Both of those are projects that do that,” Scott said.
“It’s something the city needs. It’s something that will benefit the city down the line — especially communities like North Lawndale. I’ve been in contact with Sterling Bay and the developers to make sure that folks from North Lawndale and East Garfield are able to have some of these construction jobs and some of these long-term jobs.”
Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) also endorsed Lightfoot over Preckwinkle.
But he, too, is prepared to support the $900 million in assistance for the 6,000-unit Lincoln Yards project in Lincoln Park and Bucktown and the $700 million subsidy for the 10,000-unit project known as “The 78” at Clark and Roosevelt.
“This is a great deal for the city. There’s about $64 million of it that’s gonna go out to other communities like mine that’s gonna spark other development. We need to take advantage of it,” Beale said.
Beale predicted 33 votes in favor of both mega-projects — even if Lightfoot maintains her opposition and Emanuel continues to back her up, albeit reluctantly.
“This is not a declaration of war. I’m hoping it is not written as such,” Beale said.
“This is an item that’s before the City Council. We respect and support each other’s developments. And we’re gonna respect the wishes of Ald. Hopkins,” whose ward includes Lincoln Yards.
Hopkins added: “There’s a variety of opinions that matter on this question. Mayor Emanuel and Mayor-elect Lightfoot are two. And there’s 50 others. … To approve an ordinance that you believe is the right thing to do is not defying anyone. It’s acting on your best judgment. … They want to bring those jobs, that economic development and those additional tax dollars to our city.”
Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), who endorsed Lightfoot and raised money for her, disagreed with those who claim the mayor-elect made a mistake by weighing in.
“We need to make sure the load is being shared equitably between the developer and the taxpayer on these major infrastructure improvements,” Reilly said.
“I’m not satisfied that enough is being shouldered by the developers and that they’re [not] just expecting taxpayers to pay for all these brand new bridges and roads that are ultimately gonna add value to their sites.”