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Plan Commission and Affordable Housing

Last week our Claudia Morell reported that a relatively uncontroversial Hyde Park condo development received opposition from Plan Commission members who wanted the project to have more minority sub-contractors and affordable housing units. From her story:

These criticisms are often voiced at the commission’s monthly meetings by a few dedicated members of the public. Oftentimes, their complaints go unaddressed.

But that wasn’t the case Thursday, when some of the more senior members of the mayor-appointed land use body openly discussed their own frustrations with developers they accuse of doing the bare minimum when it comes to minority participation and affordable housing. Even Chairman Martin Cabrera expressed annoyance. “You know, it has gotten to that point where we’re not going to just allow some of these developers to come and continue to develop, but not look at what’s taking place in our city.”

The developer, MAC Properties, underwent a series of blistering questions from frustrated Commission members.

One of the land use board’s newest commissioners, Lucino Sotelo, suggested planned development applications include more detail on hiring and affordable housing plans. “That is what I want to see in all future requests: what are you doing on your own coming in on affordable housing and hiring practices, regulated and unregulated. Because we shouldn’t have to have a conversation about what’s regulated if the right thing is getting done from the onset.”

Typically Plan Commission meetings are highly managed affairs. Often with tens of millions of dollars at stake, developers retain highly specialized land-use attorneys to prepare for and oversee testimony at hearings. As a result, Commissioners’ questions are usually addressed before the hearings begin. It’s rare for them to to seriously object to a project, let alone stop one cold.

Since the Plan Commission approves all planned developments, which essentially covers every major construction project in Chicago, one might think it’s an excellent place for an advocate for affordable housing and minority contracting to effect change. That might be what Sotelo, a marketing executive for Grainger, might have been thinking. But how the Commission is set up makes the reality very different.

A 22-member board, with 10 members appointed by the mayor and 12 others serving ex officio (and most of those are mayoral appointees to other positions, like CTA Board Chair Terry Peterson), the Plan Commission is not designed to be an independent body. Most of the time, only ten or so members come to meetings, with the ex officio members showing up only occasionally.

In the end, the commission approved MAC Properties’ zoning application, with a “reluctant” yes from Searle, and two no votes: Rev. Albert D. Tyson III and Peterson. It was the first time in nearly a year that a zoning application ended on a divided vote.

While a few Commissioners might oppose a project or two, the reality is that there’s little danger of any projects not passing plan commission, so long as they follow the city’s development guidelines and have passed the muster of the Department of Planning staff.


Kevin Graham Is Potentially The Most Powerful Person In Chicago

Since his election to lead the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, here and there, we’ve been learning about Kevin Graham and the team he’s bringing into office with him. His number one job–and maybe the only job that matters for the next year or so–will be to negotiate the FOP’s new contract. The current one expires at the end of June. Graham, who is a soft-spoken Northwestern University graduate with 30-plus years on the beat, describes himself as a “hardliner” who wants to defend the rights of police officers.

As I wrote last week, the police contract is at the center of a rift between Chicago’s black community and Chicago police, as well as those who support the police. City Council’s Black Caucus has detailed 14 points they want changed in the contract, which Graham has pledged to defend. As a result, Mayor Rahm Emanuel ends up in a jam, since black voters expect major change and FOP plans to do everything it can to maintain “protections” for cops.

But anything can happen at the negotiating table, and Graham is the biggest wild card in the game. While he clearly wants to support police interests, exactly how does he think is the best way to do that? Is there some kind of side deal Emanuel could cut with Graham and the FOP?

Almost everything about the police contract could be viewed through a political lens. Past contracts have taken more than a year to negotiate. What would happen if the FOP contract was still unresolved during the 2019 mayoral election? If things are dragging along and Graham and the FOP don’t feel like they’re getting a good deal with Emanuel, could they drag it out even further if they think it would help get a more sympathetic candidate elected? And what might it end up costing the city?

While Graham has been keeping a low profile since winning his new job, his actions over the next year will be heard loud and clear across Chicago.