• Erin Hegarty
    OCT 08, 2021

    Aldermen press planning officials on buildup of city-owned vacant lots

    Department of Planning and Development Comm. Maurice Cox answers questions from aldermen during a budget hearing on Thursday. 

    The tone of Thursday’s budget hearing for the city’s Department of Planning and Development was much less critical of department leadership than last year’s hearing, when the City Council complained of a closed-off relationship with city planners. But aldermen are still unsatisfied with months-long backlogs in the sales of city-owned lots, they said 

    Comm. Maurice Cox answered aldermen’s questions on his department’s nearly $162.4 million proposed budget for 2022, which would represent a drop from this year’s $176.5 million spending plan. The budget decrease is driven by a more than $12.3 million dip in money from the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund, which department leaders blamed Thursday on a drop in revenue amid the pandemic. 

    Last year’s budget hearing for the planning department lasted seven hours, as aldermen took turns jabbing Cox for what they said was a lack of communication with the elected officials and their ward offices.   

    RelatedAldermen rail on planning department commissioner for lack of communication, community involvement  

    Aldermen were less critical of Cox this year.  

    Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29) said he has "seen such an improvement in your department from last year" and commended Cox for "consistent updates.” 

    But the department’s plan to spend $20 million to conduct an environmental study on 10,000 city-owned vacant lots caught flak from aldermen who want the lots in their wards sold off to interested neighbors through the city’s Dollar Lot or Adjacent Neighbors Land Acquisition Program. Funding for the study is part of $87 million Lightfoot’s set aside in her Chicago Recovery Plan for a “vacant lot reduction strategy.” 

    "The amount of time it takes to get a city-owned lot into the hands of an adjacent neighbor or someone on the block — it takes too much time,” Ald. Pat Dowell (3) said to a round of applause. 

    Dowell said it shouldn’t take 18 months “to turn over a property to someone who’s loving on that land, cutting grass for us, cleaning it up. They need to be able to access it,” Dowell said. 

    The backlog of city-owned vacant lots in line to be sold also bubbled up in May, as city officials pointed to mandatory environmental checks as the cause of the massive delay. 

    Related: ‘Ridiculous’ environmental checks holding up progress on sale of city-owned lots, aldermen say 

    Deputy Comm. Kathy Dickhut said the study will give the city an “indication of all the past histories of these lots,” and the department expects “many of these lots to be able to be sold as-is.” 

    Ald. David Moore (17) said $20 million is a “huge price tag to not be doing anything but just knowing.” 

    Dickhut told aldermen the city does not currently know the environmental status of its approximately 10,000 vacant properties, and selling the lots takes so long because “every property needs its own single review, so you’re doing the same thing over and over.” 

    “The idea is to do the review of the land by block, and we’ve already developed a way to do that,” Dickhut said. “So we will know the basic environmental conditions of all the city property.” The lots would then be categorized according to whether they can be sold “as is” or are “very problematic properties” that need work, she said. 

    Ald. Harry Osterman (48) said the study needs “ownership or a point person who’s going to manage that inter-department coordination,” as the city should feel a “sense of urgency” in streamlining the program and clearing the backlog.  

    “This whole budget’s built on using a lot of federal money and putting it all in the right place, but the real lynchpin for all of us is, how is it going to work from a governmental perspective?” Osterman said. “So it’s got to work.” 

    Dowel took note of Dickhut’s statement that the planning department would like an additional “senior land analyst” and three “market rate sales people” added to its budget to help with the land sales.  

    Design Committee pushback 

    Some aldermen were also critical of the department’s new Design Committee, which was created earlier this year as a “peer review” component to the development process to ensure “design excellence” in some Chicago developments. 

    Related: ‘Long overdue’ committee would demand ‘design excellence’ from major Chicago developments 

    The new process is only triggered by Master Planned Developments that are 20 acres or bigger or 4,000 units or larger; “supertall high-rises” that are 984 feet or taller and would impact the city’s skyline; projects using city resources like tax-increment financing or that are part of the Invest South/West program; and developments proposed adjacent to landmarks and landmark districts, according to the city’s website.  

    Ald. Walter Burnett (27) has been critical of the new committee, blaming it for delays in project approvals. 

    "What's more important: economic development or design?" Burnett asked Cox Thursday. Economic development brings in Neighborhood Opportunity Funds and money from the Affordable Requirements Ordinance, Burnett said. “Design don’t.”  

    Burnett said Cox needs to strike a "balance" with economic development in order to fund the city’ budget and programs like Invest South/West. 

    Cox responding by saying his department talks about design a lot "because we equate it with equity." 

    "We want good things to happen in all neighborhoods of the city, and so we have to lay out our expectations so they show up in the right way,” Cox said. 

    Ald. Harry Osterman (48) was the only alderman to broach the topic of the Chicago Bears, who are considering leaving Soldier Field and relocating to Arlington Heights 

    "We have a franchise that wants to go to Arlington Heights," Osterman said before he asked Cox "to look for the opportunity for us to look at land that could keep the Bears in Chicago, because I don't want to drive to Arlington Heights," and other people don’t want to make the drive either, he said.  

    Osterman urged Cox, in his leadership role, to do what he can to keep the Bears in Chicago as an “economic driver.” 

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