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Plan Commission accused of ‘rubber-stamping’ $6 billion Lincoln Yards project

This updated rendering of Sterling Bay's Lincoln Yards development forgoes the soccer stadium and entertainment district for more park space. | Sterling Bay

This updated rendering of Sterling Bay's Lincoln Yards development forgoes the soccer stadium and entertainment district for more park space. | Sterling Bay

The Chicago Plan Commission was accused Thursday of “rubber-stamping” one of the largest developments in the city’s history — Sterling Bay’s $6 billion Lincoln Yards — and ignoring demands to slow down until after the mayoral election.

“The last time a government body in this room was asked to make a similarly momentous and expensive decision in so little time was the parking meter deal,” said Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), whose ward borders the 55-acre site that runs along the Chicago River in Lincoln Park and Bucktown.

Smith noted that Sterling Bay fired its property tax attorneys at the law firm of Klafter & Burke just days ago “to stop questions of insider deal-making” by Ald. Edward Burke (14th), deposed chairman of the City Council’s Finance Committee.

“These attorneys handled these parcels. Our City Council process is in turmoil,” Smith said.

“I respectfully ask this Plan Commission to delay the vote on this project for the sake of your reputation, for the sake of good urban planning and to demonstrate that we have good government that the public can trust.”

Friends of the Parks Executive Director Juanita Irizarry accused the Plan Commission of “rubber-stamping” a master plan that still doesn’t include nearly enough park land to accommodate what amounts to a “small city.”

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) took aim at Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to create a new tax-increment-financing district, paving the way for a $900 million TIF subsidy to support infrastructure improvements needed to unlock the site’s development potential.

Those projects include wider roads, revamped intersections, new bridges, a new Clybourn Metra station and a “multi-modal corridor” that may include “high-capacity buses.”

“Even more funds from the TIF will be diverted from the city’s corporate fund as well as CPS and other taxing bodies and put pressure on all of us to make up for the taxes absorbed into the TIF over the next two decades even as our property taxes skyrocket and that pension crisis grows with no fix on the table,” Waguespack said.

Local Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd), who was jeered as he started to speak, denounced the parking meter deal analogy as a “cheap trick” and irrelevant to the current discussion.

“I’m here to put my name and my reputation on the line in support of moving forward with Lincoln Yards today. I’m also taking full responsibility for the fact that we’re here today. Not next month. Not six months from now. Today,” Hopkins said.

“I recognize the controversy inherent in that statement. I have heard the calls for the last several weeks: `Delay, delay, delay.’ I hear you. I know that there’s a growing groundswell actually — even among people who like some things. There are still those … that would prefer more time. … There’s such an amount of detail here. I understand that. Frankly, I would actually prefer a little more time myself in many ways.”

But Hopkins said it’s time to move forward on a job-generating project with potential to change the face of Chicago on previously protected industrial land cleared for commercial use. In fact, Hopkins said he campaigned on doing just that.

“The manufacturing legacy of Chicago — as awesome as it was and as much as it’s done for us — is gone. It’s not coming back. We’re not gonna build new steel mills in Chicago anymore. So, what are we gonna do?” Hopkins said.

The City Council chamber was packed at the start of the debate — one that would drag on for five-and-a-half hours. But the outcome of the vote, by a panel of mayoral appointees, was never in doubt.

The deal was sealed after Hopkins signed off on a revised project that no longer includes a 20,000-seat soccer stadium and a live entertainment district with large music venues controlled by LiveNation.

Hopkins put the kibosh on those elements after an avalanche of opposition.

But the parade of area residents who testified during the marathon meeting said the changes made the project even more dense.

Total square footage in the new master plan released just days ago has been increased from 12 million to 15 million square feet. And the new plan includes 1,000 more residential units — for a grand total of 6,000 units.

The plan calls for 20 percent, or 1,200 of those units, to be affordable, but only 300 of those units to be built on the 55-acre site.

Sterling Bay has also agreed to contribute $39 million to the city’s Affordable Housing Fund and build another 600 affordable units no more than three miles away.