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Alderman explodes over lack of participation from people of color on Loop-based project

Ald. Greg Mitchell (7th) was furious that the developer who plans to convert a historic office building at 226 W. Jackson Blvd. into a 349-room hotel had no answer when asked about minority participation on the $137 million project.

Ald. Greg Mitchell (7th), seen here joking with Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th) during Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s first City Council meeting, was not so happy on Tuesday.
Ald. Greg Mitchell (7th), seen here joking with Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th) during Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s first City Council meeting, was not so happy on Tuesday.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

A normally low-key alderman who barely says a word blew his stack during a public meeting on Tuesday and threatened to hold up a $20 million property tax break proposed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

Ald. Greg Mitchell (7th) was furious that the developer who plans to convert a historic office building at 226 W. Jackson Blvd. into a 349-room hotel had no answer when asked about the participation of people of color on the $137 million project.

“Do not come to this body anymore without adequate representation of minority participation. Stop trying to play us like it’s a game. It’s not a game,” Mitchell said, shouting louder than his colleagues had ever heard him.

“You’re asking us to vote on millions of dollars. ‘Give this. Give that.’ But then, you try us and, if we don’t say anything, you don’t say anything…We shouldn’t even vote on this.”

Mitchell was not appeased when the developer vowed to “look at payrolls” and pledged to “make every effort” to boost participation from people of color.

“Make every effort. I’ve got to look at payrolls. You knew we were gonna ask these numbers. And you said you’re gonna make every effort. What kind of effort? You need help? We can give you contractors. There’s a million of ‘em in Chicago,” he said.

“If you have not seen city council, go look at the pictures. Go look at the names. It is predominantly minority. Why do you think we’re gonna continue to let you guys — give up tax credits, give up incentives — when you don’t even pay attention to what the makeup of this body looks like that has to vote on this stuff and take these votes back to our respective wards and look like we don’t even care about what we’re doing?”

The City Council’s Economic Development Committee ultimately approved the “Class L” property tax break needed to pave the way for the preservation and rehabilitation of the building that once served as the downtown headquarters of the City Colleges of Chicago.

But Mitchell made his point to “atta boys” from his colleagues in, yet another sign that the City Council is feeling its oats and pushing back against Lightfoot.

In fact, he threatened to hold up the tax break in the full City Council — with the blessing of local Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) - if the developer doesn’t come up with a specific plan for minority participation by the March 18 meeting.

“These are questions typical of any discussion about any type of public subsidy at City Hall. And while it may not be statutorily required to have minority participation, it’s a reasonable expectation,” Reilly said.

Reilly noted that the $20 million tax break was “critical to the bottom line” of the 349-room Hilton Hotel project. Without it, the $137 million renovation cannot go forward, he said.

Tuesday’s flare-up was, only the latest sign of City Council pushback against Lightfoot.

Reilly had his own problems last week, when the mayor’s appointees on the Zoning Board of Appeals approved a recreational marijuana dispensary at 214-232 W. Ohio St. over strenuous objections from the alderman and his constituents concerned about traffic, security and about a daring, $200,000 burglary from MOCA’s existing pot shop just days after recreational pot became legal.

After the meeting Reilly lashed out on Twitter at the zoning board for approving MOCA’s application over his objection.

“Enjoy those ‘reforms‘ Chicago! We have an incompetent ZBA full of connected bureaucrats,” he tweeted.

On Tuesday, Reilly said he has no regrets about his Twitter tirade and is exploring his options to rein in the ZBA.

“The concern with the Zoning Board of Appeals is that they’re entirely disconnected from the communities they’re making decisions for, which speaks to that larger conversation about [aldermanic] prerogative,” Reilly said.

Reilly argued that the “will of the neighborhood was very loud and clear” as voiced by the River North Residents Association. The ZBA ignored it.

“They literally were told to go cut a backroom deal by the Zoning Board of Appeals, a bunch of un-elected, appointed, connected bureaucrats. To me, that was absolutely ridiculous,” the alderman said.

“So, it’s my hope that, with my colleagues and with the administration, we can find a better way to get better outcomes for the cannabis process.”