The City Council on Wednesday approved a zoning change with potential to alter the Chicago skyline, paving the way for construction of a $700 million hotel and residential high-rise east of Tribune Tower that would be the city’s second-tallest building.
Even with zoning approval in hand, the 1,422-foot building remains a highly speculative deal that may take years to realize. The mix of condominiums, rental units and hotel rooms remain vulnerable.
Still, downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) hailed Wednesday’s vote as a sorely-needed shot in the arm for a Chicago economy brought to its knees by the coronavirus.
Reilly noted the privately-financed project two-and-a-half years in the making would generate $15.1 million in payments to the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund to support local commercial districts.
Another $13 million from the developers will support off-site construction of affordable housing to compensate for the fact that only 11 on-site units will be marketed as affordable.
Prior to the final vote, Reilly read a statement from the developers, who committed to: hiring a diversity consultant; meeting with the City Council’s Black and Hispanic caucuses; and honoring the city’s set-aside requirements of 26% for companies owned by minorities and 6% for firms controlled by women.
“Our eyes will be on this project. The commitment will be met. Or there will be significant consequences,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot told aldermen.
“But I am confident that, given the stewardship of Ald. Reilly and the focus of members of the Economic Development Committee, that we will make good on the commitments this developer has made.”
Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), chairman of the Black Caucus, applauded the mayor for her 11th-hour involvement.
“The rising tide happening downtown should lift us all,” Ervin said.
The minority contracting pledge was not enough to satisfy rookie Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th).
“Local hiring has historically and systematically excluded people of color,” Sigcho-Lopez said.
“Our communities on the South and the West Sides are starving and suffering. I do hope that this is not another pledge that is not followed, but a commitment to make sure our communities actually receive the jobs we badly need.”
Ald. Nick Sposato (38th) questioned whether there was any requirement that city residents be hired to work on the Trib Tower project.
“Most of these construction sites are loaded with suburban stickers or out-of-state plates,” Sposato said.
Zoning Committee Chairman Tom Tunney (44th) said there is “no residency requirement” because there are “no public funds in this project.”
Still, Reilly said: “I have no doubt that we can secure a good commitment out of this developer that local jobs will be for Chicago residents. … The goal here is not to necessarily increase employment opportunities for peoples of color generally. It’s really intended to benefit Chicago residents.”
The minority contracting debate was aired yet again when the Council approved a $20 million tax break for the developer who plans to convert a historic office building at 226 W. Jackson Blvd. into a 349-room hotel.
Normally soft-spoken Ald. Greg Mitchell (7th) blew his stack during a committee hearing in March after the developer had no answer when asked about minority participation 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 that day, 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.”
Wednesday, Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), Lightfoot’s floor leader and handpicked Economic Development Committee Chairman, tried to appease Mitchell by putting the development community on notice before aldermen approved the tax break.
“Keep in mind that 32 members of the City Council are either black or brown. We are demanding that, on any project, there be a reflection of the city of Chicago. We’re not gonna continue to be left on the sidelines — regardless of where this project takes place. Regardless of how funding for the project comes about,” Villegas said.
Lightfoot back-stopped her floor leader.
“This must be a message that developers understand. It’s not [that] the city of Chicago isn’t open for business. It’s that business has to include people from our neighborhoods. People who are members of the small business community. And of course, women and minority-owned businesses absolutely have to get a share in economic success of our city,” the mayor said.