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Second Ward gerrymandering could help Mayor Rahm rezone Finkl Steel site

Getting rid of former alderman Bob Fioretti was just the beginning.


Redistricting in 2011 left the Second Ward looking like a lobster. - SUE KWONG/GOOGLE MAPS
  • Sue Kwong/Google Maps
  • Redistricting in 2011 left the Second Ward looking like a lobster.

Almost five years ago, I happily joined the chorus of Chicagoans straining to find clever ways to describe the bizarre boundaries of the newly created Second Ward, which zig and zag around several north- and near-north-side neighborhoods.

They've been likened to a pitchfork, earmuffs, a barbell, and, my personal favorite, a lobster—got to give some unnamed graphics wizard at DNAinfo credit for that one.

The general consensus of most political observers is that Mayor Emanuel engineered this peculiar configuration to stick it to maverick former alderman Bob Fioretti, who was redistricted out of his own ward.

It's pretty hard to run for re-election if you’ve been redistricted out of your own ward.

But I'm starting to realize there was another—perhaps even more significant—consequence of the mayor's creative gerrymandering that's only now becoming apparent.

Many of the near north side's remaining industrial sites were stuffed into one easy-to-control ward. And whether the mayor intended this or not, he's now benefitting from it.

This includes the 28-acre Lincoln Park site of the recently demolished Finkl Steel plant, which the mayor's eager to rezone from industrial to commercial and/or residential use, so his salivating developer pals can build high-end shops, condos—anything. Just get that noisy industrial stuff out of the near north side—now!

Helping the mayor try to rid the area of industry is Alderman Brian Hopkins. Elected just last year, Hopkins is a lot more accommodating toward the mayor than Fioretti ever was.

It's true Hopkins voted against the mayor's tax hike. But he did it quietly, without holding press conferences the way Fioretti used to. And unlike Fioretti, he didn't join the anti-administration Progressive Caucus.

Now Hopkins is clearly the mayor's front man on the issue of industry on the near north side.

So let's dive into the details.

Every decade, after the U.S. Census, the city redraws its ward map to make sure each ward contains roughly the same number of residents. It's called reapportionment—and I will demonstrate tremendous restraint by resisting the temptation to devote another 1,000 or so words to one of my favorite subjects.

Before the 2011 remapping, the Second Ward linked the Loop to several near-south and near-west-side neighborhoods.

The 2011 map moved the Second Ward north, stitching together bits of the Gold Coast, Old Town, Lincoln Park, Ukrainian Village, and Bucktown.

In addition to messing with Fioretti, the 2011 reapportionment of the Second Ward roped in most of two planned manufacturing districts that stretch along the Clybourn and Elston Avenue corridors.

Oh no, people-more explanation.

A PMD is an area in which the city has adopted restrictive zoning to preserve heavy industry and protect it from encroaching retail and residential development.

The PMDs were largely the creation of two Lincoln Park alderman—Martin Oberman and Edwin Eisendrath.

Back in the 80s, Oberman and then Eisendrath, his successor, were worried about the impact of residential and retail development on the manufacturers—and on the relatively high-paying jobs they provided—that had been clustered along the North Branch of the Chicago River since the early 20th century.

This was a time when north-side aldermen actually gave a hoot about working people. As opposed to such present-day north-side aldermen as Brendan Reilly, Tom Tunney, and Michele Smith, who in 2014 voted against raising the minimum wage in Chicago.

Initially, Mayor Richard M. Daley resisted the creation of the PMDs. But in time he became a big proponent. As a result of the law, many industries have been able to withstand the pressure to sell their properties.

Today, the Second Ward includes about 15 industrial sites—with hundreds of decent-paying jobs—including General Iron, a scrap metal recycling facility; Ozinga Brothers, a concrete manufacturer; and A. Lakin, a rubber recycler. The Finkl site has been empty since the company moved its operations to the southeast side and demolished its 100-plus-year-old plant last year, but it's still zoned for industrial use under the strict rules of the PMD.

In the decades since the PMD law was passed, the areas east and west of the industrial corridors have gone upscale. And industrial property owners in the area say they're feeling pressure to abandon the PMDs so residential development can occur along the river.

For the most part, Emanuel has stayed out of the land-use debate. Then, on April 4, he issued a press release in which he pledged to "reform some industrial corridors to unlock new economic growth where industry is no longer the main driver."

Beware, Chicago, of any mayoral statement that includes the word "reform."

"In areas such as the north branch [of the Chicago River]," the press release continued, "the city will review existing and potential land use to accommodate market demands for potential technological, commercial, residential or retail development."

Translation: I'm getting rid of those freakin' PMDs just as soon as I can.

The industrial property owners and their allies realize that without the PMDs, it's only a matter of time before factory owners "accommodate market demands," as the mayor put it, by selling their land for residential or retail use.

It's the old slippery slope. If the tannery owner sells his property for town houses, it's only a matter of time before the new home owners complain about the trucks going in and out of the scrap yard next door.

So the scrap-yard owner says, Forget it, who needs these headaches? And he sells too. In time, all those good industrial jobs have left the near north side.

Mayor Emanuel says that's just the free market at work.

Well, it's not exactly free. It cost taxpayers $21 million in tax increment financing money to keep Finkl in Chicago and move it to its current site on the far southeast side.

Admittedly, that's a better investment of TIF funds than, say, the mayor's DePaul basketball arena and Marriott hotel. Point is—you're going to pay one way or the other.

Anyway, these are the kinds of pros and cons you might hear an independent-minded alderman like Fioretti raise, while everyone else is stampeding to do whatever the mayor wants.

But of course, Fioretti's not around to raise them.

Before it's all said and done, the Second Ward boundaries—as wacky as they seem—may be more beneficial to residential or retail developers looking to dismantle the PMDs than a well-connected zoning attorney.

They won't even have to pay legal fees—though my guess is that campaign contributions to Emanuel and Hopkins will always be appreciated.

In any event, this latest round of the land-use debate is just getting started. I'm sure the mayor and his real estate allies will be happy to know that this time they won't have to deal with the nettlesome intrusion of an independent alderman unwilling to toe the City Hall line. v

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