Pilsen aldermanic candidates discuss development platforms as Solis heads for the door

The candidates lining up to replace the powerful alderman say they want a more transparent zoning process

From left: Troy Hernandez, Hilario Dominguez, Aida Flores, and Alex Acevedo with Pilsen (Credit: Facebook, troyhernandezdotcom, and iStock)
From left: Troy Hernandez, Hilario Dominguez, Aida Flores, and Alex Acevedo with Pilsen (Credit: Facebook, troyhernandezdotcom, and iStock)

Another high-profile political retirement is thickening the uncertainty around the future of real estate development in Chicago, this time with Alderman Danny Solis’ surprise weekend announcement that he won’t run for a sixth term in February.

The veteran alderman’s 25th Ward covers most of Pilsen, where he’s been a functional one-man approval board for all significant construction in one of the city’s most rapidly-gentrifying neighborhoods. The ward also includes slices of the West Loop, South Loop and Chinatown, plus the 62-acre plot where Related Midwest is planning its $7 billion “The 78” mega-development.

He also chairs the City Council zoning committee, which empowers him to schedule or defer hearings on developments all over the city.

The five candidates running to succeed Solis don’t expect to match the incumbent’s clout-heavy stature in the City Council, but whoever wins will be empowered to channel the torrent of real estate interest that’s expected to follow the construction of the Paseo trail, a four-mile “rails-to-trails” project designed to resemble the 606 Trail on the city’s Northwest Side.

The next alderman will also sit across the negotiating table from Property Markets Group, the New York-based development firm that has proposed a 465-apartment mixed-use complex on a prominent 8-acre site near the east end of the future Paseo. Solis re-zoned the property in 2016 to block the proposal, saying it didn’t include enough affordable units, and the developer sued the city in response. The lawsuit is ongoing.

Amid intensifying pressure from residents and housing activists, city leaders this month proposed a sweeping set of new affordable housing and preservation rules for the city’s Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods. Among other measures, the proposal would create a new “pilot zone” mandating developers charge below-market-rate rents on at least 20 percent of units they build.

Housing activist Byron Sigcho-Lopez, a longtime critic of Solis who is now running to replace him, called the city’s plan “too little, too late” and said he would demand at least 30 percent on-site affordable units in any major development proposed.

“When you look at the more than 10,000 people who have been displaced in the last decade, there’s been a lack of response to address the issue of development in the community,” Sigcho-Lopez said. “If we have a project where the developer is willing to take the social fabric of the community into consideration, those are the kinds of projects we should be welcoming.”

Developers have responded to pilot zones program — created last year to tighten affordable housing requirements for development on the city’s Near West and Northwest Side — with a mix of begrudging acceptance and open rebellion, saying the rules make construction too costly for developers to line up financing. But Sigcho-Lopez said developers and their financial backers can stomach lower rates of return if they care about getting neighbors on board, he said.

“If you look at the profit margins on these luxury housing projects, they’re pretty high,” Sigcho-Lopez said. “I think there’s a lot of room for bargaining there.”

Alex Acevedo, a registered nurse who has centered his own campaign for 25th Ward alderman around health care, said Pilsen has benefitted in some ways from Solis’ two-decade history of wooing developers to the ward.

The 32-year-old candidate remembers being ashamed to say he was from Pilsen, a neighborhood that was known for crime and poverty when he was growing up there, he said. Now he feels safe walking his 2-year-old daughter down 18th Street all hours of the day, and Solis deserves some credit for “revitalizing” the area.

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“New development has brought a lot of families from Streeterville to the West Loop and Pilsen, and now you have these areas that aren’t too dense but have some green space, and you can walk to local businesses,” Acevedo said. “So we’ve seen a huge change in the past 20 years, but the change is both good and bad.”

In 2016, the city gave developer Fox Chicago LLC the green light to convert a former factory at 21st and Laflin streets into 99 apartments, and Condor Partners last year announced a $50 million office redevelopment it’s dubbed Mural Park for 19th and Sangamon streets.

Most recently, developer CityPads secured a permit last month to build a 59-unit co-living space at 1407 West 15th Street, at the south edge of Addams-Medill Park.

Acevedo and Sigcho-Lopez both criticized Solis’ use of a hand-picked committee to advise him on zoning decisions, saying they would take steps to make the approval process more transparent. Sigcho-Lopez said he would copy Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa’s (35th) practice of posting public notices any time a zoning application is filed, and Acevedo said he would crowdsource specific “guidelines” to lay before each developer who asks for a zoning change.

Hilario Dominguez, another candidate vying to replace Solis, went a step further, vowing to create a ward-level zoning committee whose members would be elected by community members.

“We believe that in order to govern with the community’s needs at heart, we need a community-driven process,” said Dominguez, whose campaign has been endorsed by Congressman-elect Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.

“An open and transparent process will drive more inclusive development with more community-driven infrastructure, and I think developers want that,” Dominguez said. “They want to hear how they can best contribute to the economy and safety of our ward.”

Dominguez hasn’t decided the size or composition of the committee, but he wants to model it off Chicago Public Schools’ Local School Council elections, which he called “the most inclusive process that exists in Chicago.”

Former school principal Aida Flores, another candidate for alderman, said she would preserve Solis’ Pilsen Land Use Committee but add members from community groups like Pilsen Alliance, and create an open application process for ward residents to join the body. Flores also said she would put pressure on retail developers to charge low enough rents for local shops and restaurants to afford leases.

One person close to development in Pilsen, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly, said the certainty of a new 25th Ward Alderman represents “a big question mark” for builders in the neighborhood. The community-driven process candidates are proposing could represent a mixed bag for developers, the person said.

“Some developers have had very positive results from community interaction, but sometimes it becomes a bottleneck,” the person said. “It depends on the community — some want to engage in a good-faith discussion, and some want to impose their will on property they don’t own.”

Data scientist Troy Hernandez, who’s also running to replace Solis, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.