Chicago must reform how it manages private use of public property

The worst example: the parking meter deal. The most recent: the Chicago Fire soccer facility. The practice of selling off public resources to private interests, for a certain time at a certain price, is called a “concession.”

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Stock cars set up in downtown Chicago before the July announcement that NASCAR will hold a race in the city each year for three years, starting in 2023.

Stock cars set up in downtown Chicago before the July announcement that NASCAR will hold a race in the city each year for three years, starting in 2023.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

From festival stages to NASCAR races, selling Chicago’s public property for private use has become so pervasive that citizens and public officials have become numb to it. They forget the public interest and accept it as a way of life.

But other cities do it differently. And it’s time for Chicago to take these giveaways seriously.

As Chicago grew to become a major metropolis, its leaders provided ample common land to accommodate public life. They built streets and sidewalks. They provided alleys so that Chicago could be cleaner than cities like New York, where trash is collected from the curb.

Even before our cherished “Burnham Plan,” leaders set aside parks and boulevards for people to enjoy the outdoors. They moved the trains off the lakefront and built our magnificent string of beaches.

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In recent decades, city leaders have been selling off chunks of these common resources to private interests. This practice is called a “concession.” Concessions allow private parties, usually a business, to use government property for a certain time at a certain price.

Chicago has done a horrible job of managing concessions.

From parking meters to sidewalk cafes to a soccer facility

The most notorious concession is the reviled 2008 parking meter deal that experts generally agree has cost the city billions of dollars. More recent examples include the 10-year deal with Lollapalooza and Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s controversial NASCAR deal.

All of the revenue of the city’s two biggest enterprises, the airports, is concession income. It comes from airlines and vendors. For decades, airport contracts have served as a multibillion-dollar feeding frenzy for those who can trade on the mayor’s power.

Sidewalk cafes are another form of concession. During the pandemic, these morphed into expanded outdoor dining permits overseen by a different mayoral department. Clark Street, the three-lane, one-way arterial to the Loop, has now been closed indefinitely from Kinzie to Grand. How these concessions will be granted going forward remains unclear.

The controversial soccer facility for the Chicago Fire, on land earmarked for the Chicago Housing Authority for $8 million and $800,000 a year for 40 years, is a pure concession.

And then there are leases to special uses, such as the Obama Presidential Center and the failed effort to build the Lucas Museum. Even McCormick Place and Navy Pier are big concessions.

All concessions involve a tradeoff between the public’s access to their public property and some other public interest. In Chicago, however, there is no mechanism to give weight to the public interest. The private concession almost always wins.

When the concession is conspicuous and egregious, like the parking meters and Grant Park, citizens and journalists ask all the proper questions. Why was this concession approved and others rejected? What were the alternatives? How were the terms determined? Was the public interest taken into account? What is the value of common use?

Independent commission needed

But these vital questions are not publicly answered in Chicago, because they are always too late. The deal is cut in secret. And then, if City Council approval is needed, it is rammed through.

But there is an alternative to citizen complaints, editorial hand-wringing and ineffectual council protest.

In New York City, an independent concession review committee has the final say on all concessions. Its operations are cemented in the city charter. In Los Angeles, the city charter allows the park district and other departments to enter into concessions under strict guidelines.

If Chicagoans are familiar with any commission like this in their city, it is the Plan Commission, which vets some zoning changes and public land sales prior to action by the City Council.

Chicago should form a standing independent concession commission that reports to the City Council and has authority over the concessions of all city agencies: the parks, the airports, the schools and other sister governments.

Commission members should take into account the public interest. The commission should publish its proceedings, findings and decisions. Then, an informed City Council can take the time to deliberate on the concession.

In other big cities like New York and Los Angeles, concessions are governed by the city charter. Chicago has no such charter, and this is perhaps the biggest shortcoming to effective government here. Short of adopting a charter, the council should form a concession commission.

Ed Bachrach and Austin Berg are co-authors of “The New Chicago Way: Lessons from Other Big Cities.” (Southern Illinois University Press, 2019)

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