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Emanuel denies some Chicago neighborhoods being left behind

Mayor Rahm Emanuel defends the need for another deputy mayor — and the $185,000-a-year salary the job pays. He has recently named Andrea Zopp (right) to fill the role. | Brian Jackson/For the Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Friday denied that development of the Old Main Post Office and a long-dormant site at Roosevelt and Clark was more evidence of downtown-centric development that leaves Chicago neighborhoods behind.

“These have been dormant for years. They pay minimal property taxes. When the Roosevelt and Clark property and the post office are developed, they are going to pay millions upon millions of dollars in property taxes, which will allow us to continue to make investments in basic services like after school, summer jobs, increased policing,” the mayor said.

The mayor noted that the Old Main Post Office closed in 1995 and that the 2.5 million-square-foot behemoth straddling the Eisenhower Expressway has sat vacant and decaying ever since, defying the ups and downs of the real estate market.

It’s become a civic embarrassment akin to the giant hole in the middle of the Loop once known as Block 37 before the vacant parcel was finally redeveloped.

“The post office is there. If it’s empty, it’s not producing revenue or businesses and economic activity. If there’s businesses and economic activity . . . it creates the revenue to invest in our schools, in our safety and helps us grow the economy to also deal with our fiscal challenges. So to me, this is a great opportunity. The outlook of pitting one part of the city against another is a false choice,” he said.

Emanuel kept his cool when a television reporter asked what he had to say to unnamed “neighborhood critics” who claim that, “Once again, downtown’s getting all the goodies” while “they get the shaft.”

But the mayor who is trying desperately to shed that “Mayor 1 percent” image was clearly exasperated.

“Just this week alone, we increased the bus service on the South Side, which has been an aspiration for 20 years but never been addressed. We’re finally addressing it. And having better transportation is key for economic opportunity,” the mayor said.

“Just two weeks ago, we were in Chatham with some major investments . . . and the small business [help] I announced out there was one we had done in the Pullman area . . . The dichotomy of pitting one against the other is not how businesses grow . . . You work at it at multiple levels — not one vs. the others. And I oppose the opposition because I think we’re all in this together.”

Emanuel has blamed his dismal showing among African-American voters in a recent New York Times poll on “40 years” of disinvestment on Chicago’s South and West sides, not on the public furor over his handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting video.

He’s trying just about everything to reverse that trend and public perception and win back support from black voters who believe their unsafe neighborhoods have been left behind.

Earlier this year, the mayor unveiled a revised density bonus plan that would force downtown developers to share the wealth with impoverished inner-city neighborhoods plagued by vacant storefronts and dormant commercial strips.

It calls for allowing developers to build bigger and taller downtown projects in a much broader central area in exchange for what he claims will be “tens of millions of dollars” in contributions toward neighborhood improvements.

And just this week, Emanuel formally announced his plan to hire former Chicago Urban League President Andrea Zopp as his $185,000-a-year deputy mayor and chief neighborhood development officer.

The long-awaited progress on the two massive projects in the South and West Loop has the potential to generate millions in new tax revenue, even though both projects are likely to be completed under future mayors.

On Wednesday, City Hall announced that Related Midwest was finally moving forward on development of a 62-acre riverfront site at Clark and Roosevelt that was once owned by convicted felon Tony Rezko, once a chief fundraiser for convicted ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

The following day, City Hall closed a deal with a buyer that plans a $500 million redevelopment of the Old Main Post Office. The purchase by 601W Companies LLC, the New York-based developer that owns Chicago’s Aon Center and Prudential Plaza, allowed Emanuel to back off his threat to use the city’s sweeping power of eminent domain to seize control over the building to force progress.