“Folks can still afford to live there”: Q&A with Chicago Alderman Walter Burnett

Alderman Burnett on opportunities for Fulton Market and tasks for his ward

Chicago Alderman Walter Burnett (Getty, Burnett)
Chicago Alderman Walter Burnett (Getty, Burnett)

Chicago’s Fulton Market, the former meatpacking district, is having its day in the sun, even after the pandemic pushed office vacancy rates reach historic highs. Big companies such as McDonald’s and Google are moving in, and city officials are even discussing whether to build a new commuter rail station in the area. Behind the scenes is Alderman Walter Burnettt, who represents the 27th Ward of Chicago which includes the West Loop, Near North Side and Goose Island.

Next up for the market district: life and science companies and younger people, Burnett said in an interview this week. While the alderman says the west side of his ward is still underdeveloped, he plans to push for development near the United Center.

Read on for Alderman Burnett’s take on residential, commercial developments at Fulton Market and his plans to develop the rest of his ward.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

City officials proposed a new Metra station on Ashland Avenue to serve Fulton Market. The former meatpacking district is now a destination for corporations. How would a new station lure more development?

If and when a Metra station has been built, I think it is going to: One, attract more people to the office buildings that live out of town, or they live in the suburbs, or they have easier access to be able to come to the offices. Two, it would alleviate traffic and congestion in the area because you have less people driving to work. It would encourage more developers to build offices in the area, because they know they have that mode of transportation to be able to get in and out to their facility. Also, I think it’d be attractive for folks to live in the area. Because if they do live close to a Metra station, maybe they can move from wherever they live now to commute to wherever their job is and have easier access. I think it’s a win-win situation.

Companies have been shedding office space during the pandemic, but it’s a different story for Fulton Market. What other companies are eyeing the area?

A lot of the new philosophy in a lot of these companies like Google is to have these spaces where folks feel comfortable, where they don’t have to even leave a job. Chicago right now is competing for life and science companies. The reason why these companies are moving to this area is because the Fulton market is attracting so many young people. The unique thing about Fulton Market is that it’s attracting development in areas around the Fulton Market — further west, further north or the south. Developments are happening because of Fulton Market.

After you lifted a long-standing residential ban in parts of Fulton Market, companies including Sterling Bay are planning residential projects. What other developers want to do residential there?

Shapack Partners is getting ready to meet with me next week about a residential development they have. There’s a new developer on the scene named Alex Najem. He just did two projects. LG Development just did a couple of projects that have residential and they’re doing it [affordable housing units] 30%. I had another proposal that was introduced with a co developer with Leopardo. They were initially doing a hotel proposal on the Lake and Halsted. Now they’re converting that over to residential.

Do you have any concerns that as the area gets more developed, it’s going to push out people who have been living there for a long time?

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Not at all. We allow for residential to go into Fulton Market and in doing so we are encouraging 30% affordable housing. So folks can still afford to live there. So that businesses and offices that have employees that are young, and that are not getting paid a lot still can live in that community and be able to work there. So we try to balance it out as much as we can.

Some developers and agents have been telling me that a ‘right formula’ for affordable housing ordinance should be in place so they can also benefit. What are your thoughts on this?

The state just put in new legislation for some tax credits for developers that do affordable housing. So they would give them some tax credits to do affordable housing. Also, what the city does is with the 30%, when they go above 20%, the city is going to try to kick in incentives with some LIHTC, low income housing tax credit. We’re not trying to put people in a hole with this. We’re trying to make people whole with this. As a matter of fact, they asked if I could lift the ban, they wouldn’t have a problem doing affordable housing. Because they will make more money off of their property if they did residential, rather than just do commercial.

The west side of the 27th Ward is struggling with abandoned buildings, commercial disinvestment and high crime. What efforts are you making to make that area more attractive and safer for developers?

We’re working on it. We’re putting out RFPs, requests for proposals. We’re working on some of the city property to allow for folks to develop on city land. When you get in our ward’s west of Western, it becomes, you don’t have a lot of permanent affordable [housing]. East of Western, you have a lot of permanent, affordable, but you also have the United Center and a lot of their parking lots. And we’re hoping that the United Center would do something different with their parking lots in the future. We’ve been in conversations with them about it, about doing some other things on their lot, and they’re open to it. So hopefully, some things will happen there and that will have an impact. But also at west of Western, we’re trying to take our city property and do mixed developments on it. We’re trying to do mixed-income developments.

The luxury condo market has been strong in your ward. The number of condos sold for $4 million and more this year is expected to exceed records from 2019. Will these sales help the city recover from the pandemic?

Definitely. Whatever tax dollars that we can get is helpful to the city. It helps our bottom line… of course, we’re just one of several taxing bodies. But it helps us and what helps us actually helps the other taxing bodies too, the county and the board. The more high-end sales that we have, the more taxes come in, the better it is for everyone. What’s even better for folks is if we leverage development to build up those communities where we don’t have development, where we normally have vacant lots and we’re not getting any tax dollars from. If we can get things built in those properties that help the bottom line, that helps everyone.

Outsiders sometimes say Chicago has a reputation for corruption. I heard a story about how a developer was pressured to hire a nephew of an alderman for his project to move forward. How does Chicago overcome those kinds of perceptions?

For one, that shouldn’t happen. And two, I have never heard of it. But human nature. Well, let’s say this, you come to a community, you make money, the people around you should have some benefit. There should be some public benefit from it. If you encourage folks to get people jobs, why would that be bribery? I don’t understand that. It’s not corruption as long as long as money is not involved. As long as everybody gets some kind of a share in the progress. Rich people shouldn’t just progress from things that they do. Rich people should help everyone around them progress also,

What kind of city should Chicago be? How can it get there?

We got a challenge with the county or the state. Right now, they’re trying to keep folks out of jail, out of prison, because it costs the taxpayers. If more people go to jail, the more people go to prison, the more they have to supplement the cost of them being there. So they’re trying to not allow all of those things to happen. But it has an adverse effect on the communities because we have more crime going on in the communities. That’s why we try to encourage jobs.