Lincoln Yards clears hurdle as City Council approves zoning change

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Lincoln Yards took another step toward becoming a reality Wednesday when the Chicago City Council approved a zoning change that will allow it to be built.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel promises Lincoln Yards will bring 10,000 construction jobs, $29 million dollars in industrial corridor investment and will eventually reduce traffic congestion. Opponents have one last shot at scuttling the deal when the actual TIF financing proposal comes up for approval at the next council meeting.

But Wednesday's step was seen to be the last major hurdle towards project completion, and aldermanic prerogative remains a potent force at Chicago City Hall.

While it is not a done deal yet, the council approved a zoning change that sits within the age-old practice of aldermanic prerogative -- and the massive project is in all likelihood headed for reality soon.

In a raucous council chamber full of protestors decrying the lack of investment in Chicago's neighborhoods, 2nd Ward Alderman Brian Hopkins rose on procedural motion.

"What is before us today is a simple matter. It is a zoning amendment in the second ward. Nothing more nothing less," he said.

But with that, debate ensued on whether to give a key approval to the $6 billion Lincoln Yards project, a multi-use residential and community development along the Chicago River that promises new life for industrial land minutes from downtown. The project has its supporters, including South Side 9th Ward Alderman Anthony Beale.

"They are generating funds that we can use throughout the entire city to help projects in our ward," he declared of developer Sterling Bay's plans. "We need to leverage those funds."

Council members sparred over the efficacy of $900 million in tax increment financing (TIF) from future revenues derived from the project, a structure proponents call a public-private partnership and detractors label a corporate giveaway.

47th Ward Alderman Ameya Pawar, running for City Treasurer, is in the latter camp.

"If we provide the developer the subsidy and then we allow them to pay it out, it is like we are paying ourselves back with our own money," he said during the debate.

Hopkins has worked on the Lincoln Yards project since joining council in 2015. It would create new retail and residential space along with parks and other public amenities such as bridges and walkways in an area now devoid of much economic activity. Sterling Bay has promised double the affordable housing units it originally proposed and no new soccer stadium in response to community concerns about the size and scope of the project.

The zoning change passed council 33-15. Yet opponents say approval from here should await the election of Chicago's next mayor
Opponent Scott Waguespack, alderman of the 32nd Ward which is close to the development site, thinks the TIF funds could be better used elsewhere.

"You look at the funding you were going to have to find in the next couple of years for a pension payment," he said, highlighting Chicago's unfunded pension liabilities to public sector workers. "And you're not going to be able to make that by basically putting more money aside into TIFs in areas that don't need it."

But Mayor Emanuel stood steadfast in the face of criticism, and cracked a smile as the votes were tallied. He is a strong believer in the project and looks to bring it across the finish line as a signature project of his eight-year administration. It's a project that gets public goals accomplished that would not be affordable otherwise, he maintains.

"More parks, more open spaces, more affordable housing - every one of those things is going to get done," Emanuel said. "The investment (Sterling Bay is) making doesn't just benefit them, it benefits all the people that are going through there and all the surrounding communities that have the challenge today without this. This is an opportunity to solve all those problems."
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