Last year, Mayor Lori Lightfoot imported a visionary planner from Detroit to spearhead her signature plan to bring “transformative change” to 10 neglected neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West Sides.
She may want to rethink her support for Planning and Development Commissioner Maurice Cox after Wednesday’s avalanche of criticism from aldermen who don’t like the dictatorial, top-down management style Cox has brought to the job.
Cox was on the virtual hot seat at City Council budget hearings and the seat was sizzling.
Zoning Committee Chairman Tom Tunney (44th) essentially accused Cox of having tunnel vision on Invest South/West at the expense of a boarded-up downtown.
“I want to talk about neighborhood ... and retail development that’s not on the South and West Side. We have vacant storefronts. I’ve been downtown and it feels like a graveyard during the day. Michigan Avenue has police officers on all sides over there. People are afraid to come out,” Tunney said.
“How is your department trying to sustain economic development in the Central Business District and North Side neighborhoods?”
Cox passed the hot potato to First Deputy Planning and Development Commissioner Eleanor Gorski, who is leaving to become the top planner at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Gorski talked about the “quick-start” special taxing district, or SSA, created in concert with downtown business groups to help defray their security costs after downtown was devastated by two rounds of looting.
Property owners in an SSA pay higher property taxes to generate funds used primarily for security, lighting, programming, landscaping, façade work and other beautification.
But even that was controversial.
Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) said he is “not a big fan of imposing an additional tax burden” on Central Business District property owners already paying the “highest taxes by far” in Chicago.
Nor does he appreciate the “take-it-or-leave it” way the emergency SSA was created along Michigan Avenue. “Fundamental aspects” of the SSA “don’t work for me and for big chunks of the community,” he said. “There are a lot of property owners who are impacted who are not supportive of that proposal at all.”
Once again, Cox passed the hot potato — this time, to top aide Chip Hastings.
Hastings said it was a “unique set of circumstances, given what’s happened in the last six months” along North Michigan Avenue.
“I was under the impression that we had had conversations with you and your office. We’re certainly willing to do so to talk through the differences, pros and cons with the emergency SSA vs. a bid, which is not typically done in Chicago. That’s something we’re looking at down the road,” Hastings said.
Public Safety Committee Chairman Chris Taliaferro (29th) said if he graded Cox’s performance, it would be a “resounding ‘D’ or ‘F.’”
Taliaferro complained of phone calls to the commissioner that go unreturned and being “left out of the loop” on projects in his own ward. City planners communicate more with community groups than with the alderman, he said.
The alderman asked Cox how many projects in his Austin community are part of Invest South/West, then answered himself: Not one.
“You would think there would be a concentrated effort to bring in economic development … to help combat crime,” he said.
“If we can’t work on our relationship in a community that’s severely impacted by violence and in need of resources, then something’s wrong,”
Cox told Taliaferro he “appreciates and accepts” the criticism and feels he has a “good handle” on the alderman’s priorities.
“I also know that we have the ability to partner far more aggressively than [we have] in the last year,” he said, offering to do “monthly briefings” as he has with other aldermen.
South Side Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) accused Cox of earmarking money from local tax increment financing districts with “no input from us.”
“We need to understand that these are actually taxpayer dollars — not a department piggy bank to do their pet projects,” Hairston said.
“Oftentimes, decisions are made and we are left out of process, then brought in at the last minute. ... Since we are elected and not appointed, we have to defend what you all do. It has to be more of a partnership.”
Far South Side Ald. Gregory Mitchell (7th) was infuriated by Cox’s decision to spend $23.9 million on a streetscape for an Invest South/West corridor just four blocks away from his own 79th Street corridor.
The project will be bankrolled by state transportation funds and $8.5 million from two tax increment financing districts.
“That is absolutely a slap in the face,” Mitchell said, adding that he wants to make sure the 79th Street corridor gets at least equal funding, “so my constituents don’t feel like we’ll get crumbs of what’s left.”
Aviation Committee Chairman Matt O’Shea (19th) said he had “never been part of a budget hearing where so many of my colleagues” unloaded on a department head.
“There’s a lot of top-down,” O’Shea said. “That’s got to change.”
After a full day of testimony, Cox closed contritely: “This has been a year of learning the expectations of aldermen.”