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Council OKs Lincoln Yards, cop academy as Emanuel seeks to build his legacy

Protesters opposed to a new police and fire training academy in West Garfield Park

Protesters opposed to a new police and fire training academy in West Garfield Park gathered at City Hall before Wednesday's final vote on the project. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

With time running out on his mayoral reign, Rahm Emanuel on Wednesday locked in two building blocks of his development legacy: the $6 billion Lincoln Yards development and construction of a $95 million police and fire training academy in West Garfield Park.

First up was the 38-to-8 vote to approve an $85 million contract with engineering giant AECOM to design and build a new police academy on vacant land at 4301 W. Chicago Ave.

For more than a year now, Black Lives Matter movement and other young people, organized under the #NoCopAcademy label, have made that project a symbol of Emanuel’s misplaced spending priorities.

They have argued that bolstering mental health services and school funding should be higher priorities than the police training that was a primary focus of the U.S. Justice Department’s scathing indictment of the Chicago Police Department after an investigation triggered by the police shooting of Laquan McDonald.

None of that mattered to mayoral allies, who approved both the contract and zoning for the project.

At one point during the protracted debate, West Side Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) accused “people who don’t live on the West Side of trying to tell us how to live.”

His voice rising over the protesters’ chants, Ervin noted that every incumbent West Side alderman was re-elected on Feb. 26, and all are united in supporting the project.

“Elections have consequences — and you lost!” Ervin shouted over the jeering crowd in the gallery and hundreds more outside the doors to the City Council chambers.

After the roll call vote, Emanuel rose to claim victory from the rostrum, but was shouted down by protesters chanting the now familiar, “No cop academy. $95 million for community,” and “Sixteen shots.”

Emanuel waited patiently until they filed out of the Council chambers. Afterwards, he argued the project would be a catalyst for both development and safety in a West Side neighborhood desperately needing both.

“Some of those areas have been blighted since the riots of the ’60s,” the mayor said.

“That lot is empty for three decades. It’s now gonna have a Culver’s and a Peaches Restaurant. Peaches will be a culinary institute. … You’ll have police and fire there. When was the last time you were on the West Side seeing a restaurant?”

He added: “Passion is a good thing. Moving forward is even better.”

Next up was Lincoln Yards, the 55-acre development in the previously-protected North Branch industrial corridor along the Chicago River through Lincoln Park and Bucktown.

The vote was closer, but still a comfortable 33 to 14.

The argument from local Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) — and Emanuel — was that the 23,000 jobs and 6,000 new residential units were simply too big a prize to let get away.

“They have to go raise the resources to make this investment. If all of the sudden the city were to take a halt and do what New York did, people would say, `You know what? Maybe Chicago’s not the place we think it is when it comes to economic growth and opportunities,'” the mayor said.

“I actually reject the notion [that] after three years and 50-some odd meetings that somehow pause is the answer…. Some people speaking up today never showed up at a single one. … Where were you for the last three years?”

North Side Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) was one of the naysayers. He warned about over-development and the congestion 6,000 additional units will bring.

“This is super-sized. This is Schaumburg Yards — not Lincoln Yards,” Osterman said.

“This is the rich getting richer. This is the North Side getting norther.”

Noting that the amount of promised parkland doubled during negotiations leading to Wednesday’s vote, Osterman said: “Think about what two more months [of bargaining] might do.”

Mayoral runoff opponents Toni Preckwinkle and Lori Lightfoot had urged aldermen to put off a vote on both projects until one of them takes office.

They’ve been particularly concerned about Lincoln Yards because of the $900 million subsidy to reimburse developer Sterling Bay for an array of infrastructure projects at a time when the city faces a $1 billion spike in pension payments and other pressing concerns.

Concerned that both projects could be killed by his successor, the retiring mayor took no chances. He convinced his allies to ignore the protesters and the heavy police presence summoned to control them Wednesday.

Afterwards, Emanuel argued that the massive development can only help his successor solve the pension crisis.

“Otherwise, you can either cut from police, garbage service — or just tax folks,” Emanuel said.

The TIF subsidy for Lincoln Yards was introduced only Wednesday. It’s expected to be approved next month at one of Emanuel’s final meetings. That gives opponents one last chance to air their grievances.