• Michael McDevitt
    APR 09, 2024

    Zoning code changes, expedited affordable housing approval, fewer design and environmental reviews — here’s what’s proposed in Mayor Johnson’s ‘Cut the Tape’ report

    Mayor Brandon Johnson attends a news conference in January. [Don Vincent/The Daily Line]

    Following a 90-day timeline that kicked off with the issuance of an executive order, Mayor Brandon Johnson last week unveiled a sweeping list of recommendations to speed up and reduce the cost of developing real estate across the city while aiming to allow development to occur in more places.

    The “Cut the Tape” report includes dozens of legislative and administrative policy recommendations that are aimed at shortening approval processes for developments, eliminating bureaucratic redundancies and reducing the number of requirements associated with developments to expand where developers can build.

    “The City currently has in place longstanding development-related administrative policies and processes, which significantly influence the types, kinds, and locations of developments built,” the report says. “These policies and processes were developed with the intent of advancing resident interests, public health, efficient urban layout, and high-quality design. However, some of these policies and processes, although well-intentioned, can hinder the speed and cost of development.” 

    The mayor’s December executive order called on 14 city departments to identify barriers to development and suggest policy changes to reduce them. As a result, the city convened dozens of external stakeholders to provide expert input, seeking feedback from stakeholders such as architects, housing developers, attorneys, general contractors and researching policies used in cities such as New York City, Los Angeles, Austin and Boston. 

    Johnson is proposing a $1.25 billion city bond issuance to help fund the development of increased housing and commercial corridor revitalization citywide. But the “Cut the Tape” report says that proposal only represents one piece of the puzzle. 

    Related: Alderpeople question planning, housing department officials during hearing on $1.25B bond proposal

    “Capital is necessary, but not sufficient to solve the scale of the problem needed to both invest in the built environment and in the success of local small businesses and entrepreneurs,” the report states. “Too often, the City’s initiatives to catalyze more commercial investment and small business growth are stunted by burdensome City processes and policies.” 

    While the final report contains more than 100 recommendations for speeding up the development process, the report highlights the top 10 “big bets,” which are expected to be the administration’s priorities. 

    The Department of Planning and Development (DPD) has already implemented one of these strategies by reducing the number of internal design review meetings from three to one. The design review process is described as “overly burdensome, time-consuming and unclear” for those interacting with the department. The strategy also includes a “reimagining” of the department’s Committee on Design, which informally advises the DPD commissioner and staff on projects.  

    The report creates a new director of process improvement role within the mayor’s office and states the mayor is expected to hire someone within a three-month timeframe at the earliest. 

    This new position will be charged with coordinating among city departments to implement the strategies included in the report, facilitating data collection and analysis and serving as an overall “point person” to oversee the increase in efficiency and address challenges. 

    The mayor’s office will also spearhead the creation of an expedited review and approval process for affordable housing developments in order to immediately address Chicago’s shortage, which is estimated at 120,000 units.  

    Johnson also plans to propose zoning code changes to the City Council in the next 12 months, the most notable of which would be the elimination of minimum parking requirements. 

    “This will benefit developers by streamlining the entitlement process, reducing time and costs, and allowing for more design flexibility,” the report says. “This will also benefit residents by creating denser, more walkable, and transit-friendly developments.”  

    The city will also explore the possibility of consolidating the processes conducted by the Community Development Commission and Chicago Plan Commission if not merging the commissions into one body to reduce unnecessary bureaucracy “while maintaining transparency and accountability,” the report states.

    The report states the city’s law department will explore the possibility of eliminating or reducing certain environmental review processes for city-owned land sales in a manner that does “not jeopardize the health and safety of our residents,” according to the report.

    For environmentally-cleared parcels sold under the City Lots for Working Families program, the city has already eliminated Phase 1 and 2 environmental review requirements as a condition of sale, the report notes. 

    The report explains that costs can sometimes increase for developers as a result of the reimbursement model for subsidized developments, since city contractors and developers must pay upfront for working capital. The report suggests expanding the city’s pilot for cash advance payments to reduce risk for developers. 

    “Developers and other professionals bear the risk of financing a project and only receive funding from the City upon certain project milestones. While this reimbursement approach reduces the risk of loss of taxpayer funds, it can be an obstacle for developers, particularly emerging developers,” the report states. 

    The city also plans to implement a “city wallet,” a one-stop-shop for online financial transactions with the city, as the report found that customers “often engage with several different departments directly, inputting redundant information, and waiting on slow procedures in order to transfer and receive funds.” 

    The city will also seek ways to reduce the “administrative burden” of economic disclosure statements (EDS) that the report states can add “significant time and frustration to the development process.” A working group will explore options for reducing the burden EDS requirements place on developers and contractors while maintaining the necessary ethical best practices that come from EDS requirements. 

    Some of the proposed options include extending the expiration dates of the statements, excluding EDS from the Right of Entry due diligence process for short-term uses, creating an exemption from EDS for developers that receive Low Income Housing Tax Credits and digitizing the EDS process.

    There are dozens more recommendations that aren’t highlighted as in depth in the report, but the city expects to convene a task force in the next three months to develop ways to implement the plan’s many recommendations. The task force is expected to include 20 to 30 representatives from external stakeholder groups, and the report says more than 280 people have already submitted self-nominations.

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