City’s Planning and Development Commissioner Maurice Cox steps down

Cox, tapped to lead former Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Invest South/West initiative, is the third star of her Cabinet to leave Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration.

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Commissioner of the Department of Planning and Development of the City of Chicago and member of the Cook County Land Bank Authority Board of Directors Maurice Cox listens during a Cook County Land Bank Authority Board of Directors meeting in the Loop, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022.

Planning and Development Commissioner Maurice Cox has resigned.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

Months before Lori Lightfoot’s third-place finish sealed her fate as a one-term mayor, Planning and Development Commissioner Maurice Cox predicted that her Invest South/West plan would live on, no matter who won the mayoral election.

Even if Cox turns out to be right, it will have to be under a different $196,964-a-year quarterback.

The visionary planner whom Lightfoot imported from Detroit is calling it quits instead of waiting for Mayor Brandon Johnson to decide whether to keep him.

Cox joins Transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi and Housing Commissioner Marisa Novara as stars of Lightfoot’s Cabinet who got tired of auditioning for a roster spot on Johnson’s team.

Cox could not be reached for comment.

In a letter to his co-workers, Cox wrote: “After nearly four years of unprecedented progress regarding citywide planning and design goals, I’m letting you know that I have tendered my resignation. … It has been a privilege to work with so many talented individuals who share a profound commitment to Chicago’s future, and my time with DPD has been among the most rewarding years of my career. I will be forever indebted to your professionalism, enthusiasm and camaraderie.”

A former mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia, Cox was lured away from Detroit, where he championed what he called “15-minute neighborhoods” where residents could “live, work, shop and play,” all within walking distance.

He quickly butted heads with City Council members who rebelled against his top-down management style that, too often, left them in the dark about projects in their wards.

Cox managed to right the ship with alderpersons but ran into trouble with developers for creating a Committee on Design with the potential to slow down projects and increase costs.

The advisory committee’s 24 urban design professionals have helped to refine more than 40 projects over the last two years before they reach the Chicago Plan Commission. That includes major design changes at the proposed Bally’s casino in River West.

“Here in Chicago, we value quality architecture and design. His emphasis on that reminds us of its importance. But the question is, how do you balance that and still keep the development process moving while simultaneously addressing both the short- and long-term impacts of any given development?” said former Plan Commission Chair Teresa Cordova.

“The design committee was important for promoting the value that we can’t just develop things without thinking about how they look. The challenge he probably needed to be more thoughtful about is, while he’s doing that, what did he need to do to keep that development process moving faster?”

Chicago Neighborhoods Initiatives President David Doig had a .500 record with Cox.

He got a $60 million “last-mile” Amazon Distribution Center built in Pullman in “less than a year” in the middle of the pandemic. But Doig clashed with Cox over development of a Culver’s restaurant in Pullman. Doig wanted a drive-thru restaurant. Cox disagreed. That set the project back six months, before Doig prevailed.

“The ideas were solid and the intention was solid. The problem was more on the execution and actually getting projects funded, getting them closed, getting them started. That’s where things suffered,” said Doig, who once served as the city’s first deputy commissioner of planning and development.

“If you look at the Invest South/West projects, I think only a handful of them are under construction right now despite there being dozens of projects that were approved.”

Developer A.J. Patton hailed Cox for the big tent he created and for the inner-city development he championed.

“No one’s been more inclusive than him — ever,” Patton said.

“His weaknesses were post-COVID. The cost of development in the city of Chicago doubled. The process of getting things done logistically was hindered significantly, and those were big burdens. ... It’s hard for me not to look at him through the lens of COVID. ... The whole world stopped. … He really only got about half a term.”

Patton is a co-developer on the $68 million project that will transform a notorious 21-acre dump site at Roosevelt and Kostner into a solar-powered hub for light manufacturing with two innovation centers for workforce training, a park and retail space. He also worked with Cox on projects in Humboldt Park and South Chicago.

“He cared a lot about design. He thought these communities deserved a great project,” Patton said. “He was steadfast in principles on that. He also cared that there was equity on every level and that sustainability was also in the forefront. ... That came with its successes and its challenges.”

Leon Walker, managing principal of DL3 Realty, said Cox “helped change the conversation” in Chicago about the “potential and importance of prioritizing investments in historically disinvested communities.”

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