Mayor Lori Lightfoot moved Wednesday to acquire land from the CTA to pave the way for construction of two Black-owned restaurants adjacent to a police and fire training academy in West Garfield Park, a clear sign that it’s “full-steam ahead” for a $95 million project that progressives want shelved.
The mayor’s office insisted the decision to acquire CTA property at 4331-4359 W. Chicago Ave. for $10 has nothing to do with Lightfoot’s stated desire to make the project bigger, better and, inevitably, more expensive.
She’s simply following through on former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to have “two African-American-owned restaurants, Peach’s and Culvers” built on “out lots” adjacent to the 30.4-acre training complex at 4301 W. Chicago.
“This is not an expansion of the Joint Public Safety Training Academy site nor is this any new funding towards the site, but rather standing operating procedure as the construction of the two restaurants move forward,” mayoral spokesman Pat Mullane wrote in an email to the Sun-Times.
Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), chairman of the City Council’s Socialist Caucus, was not appeased. As a candidate for mayor, Lightfoot “hinted that she might cancel the project.” Now, it’s clear she is “reversing course and going full-steam ahead.”
“There are so many other ways you can spend that capital money that lines up with Chicagoans values and ensures that we’re investing in the things that really make our communities safe. Wouldn’t it be more prudent to fix the existing police academy? Wouldn’t that result in more savings while at the same time making sure that we’re addressing that one bullit point of the consent decree?” the alderman said.
At a Budget Committee hearing last month on Chicago Police Department spending, Ramirez-Rosa said he demanded a “full accounting” of what the training center will cost and how it will be financed. He is still waiting for a response.
The current plan, drawn up by Emanuel, is a patchwork that still has a few holes.
Money for the land, which has already been purchased, comes from the surrounding tax-increment financing district.
The buildings will be bankrolled by: $20 million from the sale of a valuable North Side fleet maintenance facility; $5 million from the sale of the air rights above a River North fire station; and $23 million from the sale of existing police and fire facilities.
Fleet and Facilities Management Commissioner David Reynolds, an Emanuel administration holdover, initially said the city would work with the Chicago Infrastructure Trust that Lightfoot has since abolished to close the remaining $37 million gap, either through a “straight loan,” a lease buy-back arrangement or by issuing “bonds to pay for it ourselves.”
“Even on the city’s end, they don’t have a clear sense of the final cost of this project. That’s scary because Chicago is broke right now. … If they’re planning to fund this with more borrowing, that ultimately has to be serviced some way, some how,” Ramirez-Rosa said.
In March 2018, Lightfoot, then the Police Board president, told the City Club of Chicago that CPD ”desperately needs” a new training academy, but Emanuel’s plan to build the complex in West Garfield Park was “ill-conceived.”
“Putting this edifice to policing in this high-crime, impoverished neighborhood where relations between the police and the community are fraught, without a clear plan for community engagement, is a mistake,” Lightfoot said then.
“The allocation of any funds for a police academy … is viewed by many as further affirmation that needs of the people will never be prioritized over those of the police.”
A month after taking office, Lightfoot dramatically changed her tune.
After touring the current police academy and seeing recruits apprehending mock suspects in a dark hallway, Lightfoot came away more convinced than ever a new academy is essential to improve training that the U.S. Justice Department found so sorely lacking.
But, Lightfoot was not at all certain the two-building campus was “big enough” to house a training facility that will be “best-in-class” not just when it opens, but for decades afterward.
“This is gonna be a significant investment on the West Side that desperately needs investment, but if we’re gonna make that kind of investment, I want to get it right. I want it to be the best-in-class training facility for first-responders anywhere in the country. That’s what we ought to aspire to,” she said on that day.
• Also at Wednesday’s meeting, Lightfoot introduced an ordinance extending the city’s construction set-aside program for minorities and women — 26% and 6%, respectively — until Sept. 30, 2021.
The set-asides are due to expire Dec. 31. The extension gives the city time to “complete and consider results of a disparity study” needed to legally justify continuation of the program, according to the mayor’s office.