New buildings commissioner gets marching orders

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The deep freeze has already given Felicia Davis her “baptism by fire” as Chicago’s new, $157,092-a-year buildings commissioner.

At Wednesday’s confirmation hearing, the former police officer got her marching orders from Chicago aldermen: bird-dog foreclosures, speed demolition of abandoned buildings, but save the ones that can be saved.

“Expedite those cases. We can’t have a six-month continuence. We can’t have cases [that drag on] for three years in order to get a building demolished. People cannot live with buildings that are vacant or hazardous for years because the court system is so backed up,” said Ald. John Pope (10th).

“Right now, it’s kind of quiet from a [standpoint of] gang and criminal activity with it being so cold. But, when spring breaks, those vacant buildings will again become havens for activity.”

West Side Ald. Deborah Graham (29th) acknowledged that some vacant buildings are too far gone to be redeveloped. But, she urged Davis to save those buildings that can be saved and not be too quick to summon the bulldozers.

“If you drive through the West Side of Chicago, you see nothing but vacant lots. I don’t desire to see that. I would rather see redevelopment,” Graham said.

Advising Davis to “get your running shoes on,” Graham added, “We really need to find some money to get these properties back on the tax rolls because, once they become vacant lots, then they’re havens for other things: abandoned cars and parking.”

Zoning Committee Chairman Danny Solis (25th) said Davis must also decide what to do about small digital signs popping up in Chicago neighborhoods without approval from local aldermen.

Last summer, the City Council slapped a nine-month moratorium on small digital signs—due to expire in April—to a

“sign task force” time to study the “public health, safety and quality-of-life impact” that small digital signs have on Chicago neighborhoods.

“That’s a potential source of revenue for the city. We need to see if we can take advantage of it,” Solis said.

Davis said the marching orders she got before the Zoning Committee unanimously confirmed her appointment only “reaffirmed” the priorities she has already set for herself.

“There is a balance between some of the crime and disorder that happens with an abandoned or vacant building, but also supporting economic development and revitalization of our neighborhoods,” said Davis, who has already taken “18 enforcement actions” against landlords who fail to provide sufficient heat.

“That’s going to be something we’ll have to continually monitor and make sure we’re doing both sides of the equation and not just one.”

Davis replaces attorney Michael Merchant, who was promoted to the job of Chicago Housing Authority CEO after Charles Woodyard was forced out.

The CHA subsequently acknowledged that it settled a sexual harassment complaint against Woodyard for $99,000 on the day before he resigned.

Emanuel’s decision to put Davis in a hot-seat job that has been a revolving door leaves the Department of Buildings in the hands of an African-American. That’s politically important, since there is a shortage of African-Americans in the mayor’s cabinet.

Even more important is the law enforcement background that Davis will bring to a department that was a constant source of corruption and controversy under former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

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