Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Wednesday once again shuffled the deck in his second-term cabinet — by naming new leaders for the Public Building Commission and for a once-scandal-plagued Department of Buildings that has had a revolving door at the top.
When the music stopped in the City Hall version of musical chairs, Deputy Corporation Counsel Judy Frydland was the new buildings commissioner and current Buildings Commissioner Felicia Davis was the new executive director of the Emanuel-chaired Public Building Commission.
Longtime PBC Executive Director Erin Lavin Cabonargi was without a chair. She has resigned to become director of construction at Sterling Bay.
As head of the Law Department’s Building & License Enforcement Division, Frydland has spent the last 25 years prosecuting Chicago landlords for building, fire and lead paint violations.
She inherits a department once mired in scandal that has turned the page under Davis but is still struggling to rein in and publicly shame its list of “bad landlords” and file a flurry of lawsuits to force owners of 400 of Chicago’s pre-1975 residential high-rises to make fire safety improvements they have ignored for nearly a decade.
The PBC is an Emanuel-chaired agency that oversees construction of schools, libraries, police and fire stations but hasn’t seen as much work lately.
That’s because the Chicago Public Schools are on the brink of bankruptcy with a $1.1 billion shortfall, a $9.5 billion pension crisis and the threat of Chicago’s second teachers strike in three years.
The financial crisis has forced CPS to propose a bare-bones, $160 million capital budget that’s the smallest in 20 years.
Still, the former Chicago Police officer who has emerged as one of Emanuel’s most trusted advisers welcomed what she called a “promotion” to the PBC. To those who believe she’ll have little to do because the cupboard is bare, Davis would only say, “Stay tuned.”
“My track record speaks for itself. The mayor saw that and asked me to go to the Public Building Commission and be his partner as he works on additional development. The mayor has a bold vision. He has ambitious goals and a plan to bring economic development to every corner of the city,” she said.
Pressed to reveal specifics, Davis said, “If I could tell you, I would. . . . I just have to tell you to stay tuned.”
More than a year ago, Emanuel unveiled plans to use $60 million in tax-increment-financing money to build Chicago’s 11th selective enrollment high school on the Near North Side and name it after President Barack Obama.
Emanuel subsequently dropped the Obama name, saying he “made a mistake” in his “rush to honor” his former boss. Black elected officials had taken offense, citing the president’s roots on the South Side.
Earlier this month, local Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) questioned whether the showcase North Side high school, whatever it ends up being called, will ever be built. Burnett expressed his fears four days after CPS notified the Chicago Teachers Union it would not exercise its option to extend the teachers contract for another year because it does not have the $105 million needed to fund the 3 percent pay raise.
On Wednesday, Davis was tight-lipped about the stalled project. She would only say she was “looking forward to working with the mayor on many exciting projects,” but “I’m not announcing any new projects here today.”
As for her 18-month stint at the Department of Buildings, Davis said she couldn’t be more proud.
“This department has had some challenges in the past, but it was gratifying to be here at a critical time to turn the page. We upgraded the hiring requirements for our inspectors. Every employee has gone through customer services training. We’re delivering projects and supporting economic activity by partnering with architects, engineers and developers,” Davis said.
Davis acknowledged that the city is still pursuing landlords who have thumbed their noses at the delayed requirement to install sprinklers or make less-costly “life safety” improvements, such as enclosing stairwells. But she said that’s only because the court system can’t handle 400 lawsuits at once.
“There are 100 of the most egregious cases in court at this point and every month we file new cases. It’s just the capacity of the court system,” she said.
“I look forward to the day when all of the buildings in our life safety portfolio have all of their safety mechanisms in place, have met the threshold and are delivering life safety for all the residents of their buildings.”
Emanuel has already shuffled the deck and breathed new life into his second-term cabinet by naming CTA President Forrest Claypool, the mayor’s longtime friend, to be his chief of staff.
In a news release announcing the latest changes, the mayor portrayed the moves as a win-win for both women and for the city.
“Felicia’s diverse background has served Chicago well in her various positions in city government, and her most recent work at [the Department of Buildings] supporting and promoting new developments in neighborhoods throughout the city has positioned her to ably lead the PBC as the commission continues to develop community facilities and infrastructure,” Emanuel was quoted as saying in the news release.
“Similarly, Judy has decades of experience fighting for the safety of Chicago residents in building court, and the relationships she’s built with the business community along the way will enable her to be an effective advocate for public safety and continued economic development at DOB.”
Frydland said she has spent the last 25 years working closely with the Department of Buildings to “improve residents’ quality of life and increase the safety” of Chicago neighborhoods by “aggressively enforcing” the building code.
“Yet the Department of Buildings is much more than just an enforcement agency, and as commissioner I will continue to strengthen our relationships with businesses and investors to drive economic development in neighborhoods throughout the city,” the new commissioner was quoted as saying.