Appeal for affordable housing pushes limits of mayoral power

A planned Northwest Side apartment building prompts debate over neighborhood opposition and aldermanic power over zoning.

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A rendering shows a view looking northeast of the building proposed for 8535 W. Higgins Road. The design is by FitzGerald Associates.

A rendering shows a view looking northeast of the building proposed for 8535 W. Higgins Road. The design is by FitzGerald Associates.

Glenstar Properties

The maneuvering is intense, the positions staked out. It’s about affordable housing on the city’s Northwest Side, a rhetorical road well-traveled and one that often winds up with people talking at each other, not to each other.

In other words, it’s typical for anything in the public sphere these days.

At issue is an apartment building proposed for 8535 W. Higgins Road, near O’Hare Airport. It would be a $91 million investment by Glenstar Properties containing 297 units, 59 of them set aside as affordable for those whose incomes fall within the limits of city ordinance.

It’s Chicago’s version of rent control. The project in the 41st Ward has the support of Mayor Lori Lightfoot via the backing of city departments.

It also has raised opposition from residents on the grounds that it’s too big for the area and would add to traffic congestion and school crowding. Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st) opposes the project and pulled off a parliamentary move that could kill it.

But the administration, via Housing Commissioner Marisa Novara and Planning Commissioner Maurice Cox, spoke eloquently on its behalf, making some wonder if the Higgins Road deal would bring about a long-threatened showdown at the Chicago City Council corral over “aldermanic prerogative,” the informal practice of aldermen controlling zoning changes in their wards.

“Time will tell” if that fight is coming, said Napolitano, who has collected 2,500 signatures on a petition opposing the development. “People call it aldermanic privilege or prerogative. Many of us look at it as authority based on what constituents want. When do the taxpayers and residents have a say about what goes on in their wards?”

On Aug. 26, the Chicago Plan Commission backed the project on arguments that it fulfills city policies to promote affordable housing, especially in transit-oriented locales. The development would be nestled among offices and hotels close to the Cumberland stop on the Blue Line.

Advocates see it as a needed domicile for workers at O’Hare and other nearby job centers. The commission posted a 180-page printout of emails for and against the project. The “antis” used their own words. The “pros” mostly had the same language.

Ordinarily, the vote would send the project’s zoning ordinance to the City Council’s zoning committee. But Napolitano had already blocked that. In June, he had the committee preemptively defer the matter until February, close to a six-month deadline for action. City rules say if there’s no vote six months after a plan commission recommendation, the matter is dead.

His fellow aldermen agreed with Napolitano that if the mayor beats him on this one, she’ll go after them next. They shared his irritation that Glenstar was back with a proposal similar to one the committee already rejected in 2018.

“We understand aldermanic prerogative, but it has to have some reason behind it,” said Michael Klein, managing principal at Glenstar. He said Napolitano has “flip-flopped” on the project and offered varying rationales for being against it.

There’s strong demand for housing near O’Hare, he said, and the seven-story building will be smaller, with less impact on traffic, than an office building Glenstar formerly wanted there.

“Our goal is to get before [the zoning committee] and explain our position and, hopefully, change some minds,” Klein said.

If he gets that far, there will be more focus on why people oppose an apartment complex with affordable rents. Novara touched that nerve at the plan commission meeting and caught grief for it.

“It goes without saying, but I’ll say it,” she told commissioners. “Chicago is a city with profound racial and economic segregation, and we didn’t get that way by accident. We got here by multiple decisions … that collectively created and now maintain our very separate existence.” She spoke of a NIMBY attitude and people of means lacking empathy for those less fortunate.

It gave Napolitano and another Northwest Side alderman, Nicholas Sposato (38th), an opening to accuse her of calling their constituents racists. Novara replied she was speaking not about people’s intentions, but the result of local opposition to affordable housing.

Cox, the planning commissioner, also said the project merits support despite residents’ views. “Our job as a city is to expand housing choice, so that we have more people of varying incomes able to live side by side,” he said.

Noble sentiments, but neither Novara nor Cox is elected. People don’t like it when a distant bureaucrat knows what’s good for them. They’ve got pressing issues on their minds — rampant crime, school performance, COVID-deadened business districts and rising taxes that make people wonder about investing in a neighborhood. Progress on quality-of-life basics would help when mayoral surrogates appeal to consciences about fair housing.

An alderman who is an old hand at development fights summed it up. “Safety and schools are No. 1 in any ward,” he said. “Economic development [and housing] will follow if we have safety and schools.”

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