Sterling Bay’s sweeping plan to remake 54 acres along the Chicago River scored a key approval Thursday from the City Council’s Zoning Committee, surviving an onslaught of controversy and procedural confusion during a heated meeting
The favorable vote tees up the $6 billion Lincoln Yards proposal for a final stamp of approval by the full City Council, which could vote as early as next week.
Alderman James Cappleman (46th), interim chairman of the committee, began the hearing by trying to delay a vote, saying “a lot of new information has come in recently, and it’s a lot to digest.”
But other aldermen voted to overrule him, setting off a four-hour debate over public financing, affordable housing and the role of development before eventually voting it forward.
“You’re not the chairman,” Alderman Walter Burnett (27th), a vocal supporter of the Lincoln Yards Plan, told Cappleman. “You don’t run voting in other people’s wards. This is not your ward.”
Cappleman ultimately voted “no” on the proposal, joining Aldermen Deb Mell (33rd), Ameya Pawar (47th) and George Cardenas (12th) in opposition. Nine committee members voted in favor.
The proposal was sent to the zoning committee after it was approved by the Chicago Plan Commission in January.
Cappleman, who inherited the committee chairman job after embattled Alderman Danny Solis (25th) stepped down in January, had delayed the hearing until Sterling Bay beefed up its plans to include affordable housing.
He later agreed to schedule Thursday’s meeting while the developer and critical alderman “negotiated” over final details.
On Tuesday, Alderman Brian Hopkins (2nd) announced Sterling Bay would double the number of on-site affordable units included in the plan, from 300 to 600, while halving the allotment of off-site affordable units. And in one final gesture to critics on the eve of the vote Wednesday, Hopkins said the developer would trim some building heights and reduce its overall construction footprint from 15 million to 14.5 million square feet.
“That’s basically a 23-story building that we just took out of this plan,” Hopkins said during the hearing Thursday. “There will be nothing exceeding 600 feet, and that’s down from the original proposal which had 800-foot towers in it.”
It was the last in a long series of revisions Sterling Bay has made to its proposal in the face of withering criticism since it was first unveiled last summer. The plan was originally designed to include a cluster of concert venues and a 20,000-seat soccer stadium, but Hopkins rejected both. Sterling Bay also expanded its allotted park space in the site from 13 to 21 acres.
The developer is also counting on the city to approve a $1.3 billion tax increment financing district around the Lincoln Yards site, which would divert future property tax revenue into a fund to pay for public infrastructure upgrades in the area. That controversial plan must be approved by the City Council finance committee, which meets Monday, then by the full council.
Both Cappleman and Alderman Pat O’Connor (40th), who chairs the finance committee, have faced intense pressure to push the hearings until either attorney Lori Lightfoot or Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle takes over as mayor in May. Both candidates have echoed the call to delay.
Cappleman and O’Connor both face runoff elections April 2 to see if they hold onto their seats for another term. Their challengers, Marianne Lalonde and Andre Vasquez, both appeared in a press conference to pan Lincoln Yards before the hearing Thursday morning.
Lalonde also blasted Cappleman during the public comment period of the hearing on Thursday, saying he was “hiding” behind procedural rules to make it look like he did not personally endorse the proposal.
If the TIF district is not approved, the proposal would likely have to be dramatically pared down, city planning department commissioner David Reifman told The Real Deal this week.
“If we want the type of growth and taxes and jobs and investment that Chicago needs and deserves as a global city, I don’t see how it happens without that infrastructure,” Reifman said. “And we don’t have federal funds, we don’t have state funds, and we’re not going to raise taxes on our existing residents to pay for this … so the only way to pay for it is primarily through TIF.”
Reifman followed up with a full-throated endorsement of the proposal during Thursday’s hearing, calling it “one of the most scrutinized and publicly engaged private projects in the history of the city.”
Among the 18 members of the zoning committee, only Pawar and Cardenas spoke in direct opposition to the proposal. Cardenas said the proposal was “not a fully baked cake,” and Pawar said Sterling Bay took advantage of a “loophole” in the city’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance allowing developers to pay into a fund in return for including fewer affordable units on site.