Moody Bible sites test grassroots input on development

A group that values diversity and good design is advising aldermen about the Near North Side plan from JDL Development.

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Aerial view of land in the 300 block of West Oak Street adjoining Walter Payton High School which JDL Development intends to buy from the Moody Bible Institute,

Aerial view of land in the 300 block of West Oak Street that JDL Development intends to buy from the Moody Bible Institute for high-rise construction. The land adjoins Walter Payton High School.

Brian Ernst/Sun-Times

If someone wants to put up a building in Chicago, the process can be as muddy as our baseball diamonds in the spring thaw. Whether and how the developer needs a zoning change can be tricky enough, and then there’s the towering question of “aldermanic prerogative.”

It’s a political courtesy City Council members allow one another. If a particular alderman doesn’t want something approved in his or her ward, the others are unlikely to vote it through.

It confers enormous power not only on aldermen but on community groups able to raise a fuss. At its best, it’s a veto for something a neighborhood doesn’t want; at its worst, it reinforces segregation. It’s also given some aldermen cover to solicit bribes.

But in wards that have grown savvy about reviewing developments, there’s an ad hoc system that gives community groups with resources a lot of influence. This year will show how the process works on the Near North Side, where JDL Development wants to build on eight acres it intends to buy from the Moody Bible Institute.

Two aldermen whose wards touch the development said they will rely on the Near North Unity Program for input. One, Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd), said, “They’ve been around the block on these issues.” That’s high praise from an alderman.

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The Near North Unity Program dates from 2010. With just one part-time staffer of its own, it draws on other organizations, businesses and churches to foster dialogue and cooperation in an area where rich and poor may live side by side.

It tries to strike a balance between the former Cabrini Green stretch and the Gold Coast, Old Town and River North. Near North Unity Program boundaries are Chicago to North avenues, Wells to Halsted streets.

“Someone needs to be the convener of that conversation. That’s how we see ourselves,” said its volunteer executive director, Randall Blakey, who is executive pastor at La Salle Street Church.

It has vetted and successfully urged revisions in numerous projects, as the Near North area has drawn a flock of developers. Blakey said he wants developers to get a sign-off from his land-use committee before the design gets a broader hearing, usually organized with the city’s planning department. These days, such a hearing probably is virtual.


The map shows JDL Development’s general plan for properties it plans to buy from the Moody Bible Institute. The sites are next to and south of Walter Payton College Preparatory High School and its baseball field.

JDL Development

The organization laid down a marker for developers in 2015. With the help of the Local Initiatives Support Corp. and others, it produced a neighborhood “quality of life plan” that took an inventory of its assets and emphasized values such as safety, programs for youths and families, and land use that beautified streetscapes and adds green space.

“We were the first community-based organization here to produce a set of design guidelines,” Blakey said.

The JDL plan for the Moody sites — a project it dubs North Union to hit the theme of connecting neighborhoods around it — calls for about 2,680 residential units over many years. The housing types range from buildings of 47 and 55 stories to townhomes, with set-asides for affordability. The numbers are just estimates now; market cycles could change the project over time.

But JDL looked at community priorities and decided early on to work with them. The result was a commitment for publicly accessible green space, including a dog park, always a winner with neighbors.

NNUP Program Manager Michele Dreczynski said while there’s still work ahead, things have started well. “This is the message we’ve given developers: If you don’t spend time thinking things out, the less likely you are going to get approval from this community,” she said.

That sign-off guides Hopkins and Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th) in the final zoning recommendation to the city. “The alderman basically shares his power with us,” Dreczynski said.

But the development rules vary by ward, and some aldermen do not involve groups in zoning matters.

“The ad hoc system has a lot of challenges,” said Christina Harris, director of land use and planning at the Metropolitan Planning Council. “It creates contention between how and when community groups weigh in or do they weigh in at all.”

There’s always the possibility that community groups don’t fairly represent local views or can be co-opted by politicians or developers. But when community review works well, it can help everybody, including the aldermen, who get an early warning for potential controversies, and developers, who get free focus groups for what they want to peddle.

The Council has argued for a more uniform citywide planning process that requires community input. But Harris said, “Aldermanic prerogative is a thorny issue. They want to have a say. There needs to be an allowance for that.”

It’ll have to do until a better idea comes along.

A locked gate protects land in the 300 block of West Oak Street which JDL Development intends to buy from the Moody Bible Institute for development.

A locked gate protects land in the 300 block of West Oak Street that JDL Development intends to buy from the Moody Bible Institute for development.

Brian Ernst/Sun-Times

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