Lightfoot chooses Detroit planner to make the big leap to Chicago

Chicago mayors have a long history of choosing outsiders for top jobs who end up being chewed up and spit out by the city’s unique brand of politics. But Mayor Lori Lightfoot is determined to try it with Detroit planner Maurice Cox.

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Maurice Cox

Detroit Planning and Development Director Maurice Cox is Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s choice to make the giant leap to Chicago.

Chicago mayors have a long history of choosing outsiders for top jobs who end up being chewed up and spit out by the city’s unique brand of politics.

But Mayor Lori Lightfoot is determined to try it with the Department of Planning and Development assigned with delivering on her promise to bring “transformative” change to South and West Side neighborhoods suffering for decades of disinvestment.

The mayor on Wednesday chose Detroit’s Planning and Development Director Maurice Cox to make the giant leap to Chicago. Cox, who spent two years as mayor of Charlottesville, Va., could not be reached for comment.

In a press release announcing the appointment, Lightfoot made no apologies for choosing an outsider over longtime city planner Eleanor Gorski, the well-respected insider who’s been holding down the fort as acting commissioner.

“Maurice Cox is uniquely qualified to help create a city where development addresses the fundamental needs of every neighborhood so that Chicago benefits and equitably works for all its residents,” the mayor said in the statement.

“It is time that the city focuses on development that is directed throughout every community and into areas that have been overlooked for decades.”

In Detroit, Cox is credited with having presided over what Lightfoot’s office billed as a “resident-centered” planning department that spearheaded Detroit’s bounce back from bankruptcy to revitalization.

The renaissance was helped by a “Strategic Neighborhood Fund” in Detroit that sounds a lot like Chicago’s “Neighborhood Opportunity Fund.” Cox used those resources to champion “innovative urban planning strategies” that delivered “equitable redevelopment” and “physical quality-of-life improvements,” according to Lightfoot’s office.

Cox announced his resignation in Detroit several weeks ago, telling his bosses he had accepted the top planning job in Chicago. Lightfoot waited weeks to announce the appointment here, apparently while working to convince Gorski to stay and be his first deputy.

An article in Detroit Crain’s that followed the Cox announcement there described his affinity for “20-minute neighborhoods” where residents could “live, work, shop and play” all within walking distance.

In a project on Detroit’s northwest side described as a “showcase,” the story credited Cox with having “mapped out a vision for renovating existing structures, partnering with private developers to build new houses, and turning the large number of vacant lots into landscape walking paths and recreational spots.”

In other parts of Detroit, Cox talked about districts that included what Detroit Crain’s called a “mix of streetscape improvements, bike lanes, new retail, residential and commercial development, historic preservation of significant structures and recreational pathways.”

Although his tenure in Detroit was generally acclaimed, the Crain’s story noted that “many of the ambitious plans” he devised are still in the works.

The story also noted the bike lanes he championed “annoyed motorists” and that “neighborhood activists sometimes” accused Cox and his team of moving “too fast for the comfort of residents.”

”We’re going to make the quality of life so good that other people will want to live there as well,” the story quoted Cox as saying.

”We will be able to grow the city, but we’ll grow it by making sure the folks here have the highest quality of life possible.”

That sounds like a blueprint for precisely the kind of transformation that Lightfoot has promised to deliver to “high-priority commercial corridors” on the South and West sides.

But only if Cox can navigate the shark-infested waters of Chicago politics better than the likes of Robert Paaswell, Robert Penn, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, Jody Weis, Garry McCarthy, Ruth Love, Mary Rose Loney and all of the other outsiders who came and went before.

In an emailed statement, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce said it supports Lightfoot’s “goals for equity and opportunity in all neighborhoods and continuing the growth and strides we have already made.”

“We look forward to learning more about Maurice’s vision for Chicago and how the business community can support him and ensure everyone has access to economic opportunity,” the statement said.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article included former Chicago Parks Supt. Carolyn Williams Meza in the list of past city officials from outside the city. She is actually from Chicago. 

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