Cityscape: Planning for Daley | Essay | Chicago Reader

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Cityscape: Planning for Daley

For the past six years civic and community groups have enjoyed an extraordinary amount of influence over city planning decisions. Can they work with the new mayor?

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The prospect of Richard M. Daley as mayor of Chicago fills many civic activists with a curious mixture of anticipation and terror. The latter is probably uppermost in their minds at the moment. No one has forgotten how Daley's father ran the city: whatever else might be said for the old man, City Hall during his tenure was a closed shop. The thought of returning to those days, when those not in the old-boy loop were simply ignored, is depressing.

Especially given the cheery days just past. Although it has been little noted in all the noise over black and Hispanic empowerment, the last six years have been something of a golden age for civic and community groups in Chicago. Never have they had the influence on city policymaking that they do today. This has been due partly to their own persistence, but partly also to the receptive atmosphere at City Hall.

The planning department, for instance, routinely tells developers who come in for approvals on real estate projects to present their plans to citizens' groups for comment. After hearing what people say, the developers often wind up modifying their plans, on occasion substantially (although it is rare for a project to be killed because of citizen opposition). Citizens' views are also sought on policy matters. Elizabeth Hollander, the planning commissioner, meets monthly with representatives of the leading civic organizations to discuss downtown issues. Out in the neighborhoods, local groups play a major role in the city's community planning efforts, such as the recently published Life Along the Boulevards plan, which aims to improve neighborhoods all over the city by redeveloping the long-neglected system of boulevards that connect our major parks.

Sometimes citizens' groups are called upon to take an even more active role. The Metropolitan Planning Council, one of the oldest dogooder groups in the city, is under contract to prepare recommendations on a new downtown light-rail system. The Friends of the Chicago River have been asked to overhaul urban design guidelines for the downtown river corridor. The River North Association and the Chicago Central Area Committee, a business group, have prepared urban design guidelines for the River North area. The community-based North River Commission and the Open Lands Project, a conservation group, recently negotiated a deal with the city to ensure that the 108-acre North Park Village nature preserve remains open space.

All this could end overnight. A lot hinges on whom the new mayor appoints to replace Liz Hollander. The early word in this connection is encouraging: Hollander's deputy, Dave Mosena, reportedly has the inside track. Mosena is highly regarded by most activists who have had dealings with him, and would probably continue the open-door policies of his predecessor.

But there may be a major shakeup in the offing that could dramatically change the way the city's planning process works. Real estate developer Thomas Klutznick, who reportedly will play an important role in Daley's administration, has spent the last few years arguing for the creation of a Chicago Redevelopment Authority that would combine the existing city departments of planning, housing, cultural affairs, and economic development and the landmarks commission. The authority would have a board and chief executive officer appointed by and reporting to the mayor, but otherwise would operate independently to a large extent.

No one knows what role, if any, ordinary citizens would play in such an authority. To give him his due, Klutznick has written of the importance of including citizens' groups in the planning process. But it is easy to imagine that if some go-getter developer type were put in charge, it might suddenly come to pass that, say, citizen review of real estate projects became one of those little luxuries the city could do without.

Even if Klutznick's reorganization does not occur, the planning department may not be given as much leeway in accommodating citizens' groups as it has had in the past. There has been rumbling in the real estate community that the current arrangement places too much emphasis on "process," which some feel is a code word for citizen review. If the planning commissioner gets his chain yanked a few times for wasting too much time coddling the goo-goos, activists could suddenly find it a lot harder to get their telephone calls put through.

Things are especially dicey for citizens' groups without a clear neighborhood base. This includes organizations like the Metropolitan Planning Council, Friends of Downtown, Friends of the River, the Landmarks Preservation Council, Friends of the Parks, and the Open Lands Project.

These groups are widely respected, for the most part, and some of them have been around for a long time. They have their share of well-connected friends. No mayor can afford to shut them out altogether. But their influence could easily be diminished. They cannot easily mobilize great numbers of voters. The residential population downtown, where many of the groups concentrate their efforts, is still relatively small. The groups have no consistent champion in City Council, and in fact some aldermen are becoming increasingly hostile.

If the work that these civic groups do were trivial, none of this would matter. But it's not. Civics provide much of the city's long-range planning--not so much the big project stuff, but the detail work that keeps the city livable.

Let me give an example. For a couple years now I've been involved with Friends of the River. During that time we've reviewed about a dozen riverside real estate projects. Our goal has been to upgrade public amenities along the Chicago River--walkways, parks, cafes, and so on--with the idea of eventually creating a riverside greenway that would be comparable in some respects to the lakefront parks.

We have had considerable success, although given the long lead times involved in major construction projects there is little yet to look at. In virtually all the projects we reviewed, the developers made at least a few changes, and in some cases many changes, at our request. The changes were usually minor, but not always; one building was extensively redesigned to allow for a river walkway. Most of the changes were written into the zoning for the property and thus now have the force of law. In all but one or two cases we were ultimately able to endorse the project before the Chicago Plan Commission, and I would venture to say that the developers were, if not wildly enthusiastic about the whole process, at least satisfied with the outcome.

Did review by groups like ours delay approval of these projects? Yes, but usually only by a few weeks. Did it cost the developers money? Yes, since you have to pay your architects and attorneys to attend meetings and revise plans, but the amount in comparison to the total cost of the project was invariably small. Was what we achieved worth all the trouble? Without question. But until the projects are actually built that won't be obvious, which is one of the reasons the change of mayoral administrations makes us anxious. After all, Daley has been quoted as saying he wants to "streamline" the approval process, and he will undoubtedly hear from some who regard people like us as an impediment to progress.

But to say that people involved with Friends of the River and similar groups are nervous about Daley isn't to say they're filled with fear and loathing. On the contrary, I think at least some in the activist crowd feel a certain sense of expectation.

Partly this is because we are Chicagoans, and therefore prey to atavistic impulses. Ours is perhaps the only major city in the country that still expects its mayors to be tribal chieftains. Richard J. Daley was such a man, and so was Harold Washington. They were natural leaders, with followers who were loyal to the point of fanaticism. They would have run things even in a primitive society, although Lord knows they don't come much more primitive than Chicago.

Gene Sawyer, on the other hand, was no one's barn boss. Neither is Larry Bloom, which is why no one took him seriously during the recent primary, despite the fact that on paper he was the most qualified candidate. Ed Vrdolyak is a dominating figure, but he also has a peculiar ability to radiate evil that gives even hardened bungalow belters the heebie-jeebies.

Rich Daley . . . well, it may be going a bit far to call him a natural leader. He is a man who came to power by virtue of birth. Nonetheless he is the head of a powerful family and as such commands an army of devoted retainers, a fact that, in Chicago as in any feudal state, counts for a lot. Chicagoans of all stripes, even nominally liberal ones, naturally gravitate toward such figures. Cynics may see in this something of the fondness the Spanish once had for Franco, but I'd say it's more a question of realism. We expect those who make promises to have the wherewithal to carry them out. This is not a city that would elect a John Lindsay or for that matter even a Wilson Goode if it had a plausible alternative.

So Daley inspires some positive feelings simply out of the belief that he will be able to accomplish things Sawyer could not. His will not be simply a caretaker government.

But there is more to it than that. Most civic (as opposed to neighborhood) activists are, if not yuppies in the technical sense (i.e., young urban professionals making $40,000 or more a year who are prone to obnoxious behavior in restaurants), at least yuppoid. They are college graduates. They hold responsible white-collar jobs. They dress neatly. They have conventional middle-class expectations. They believe in progress and self-reliance.

Most of them probably voted for Harold Washington. But I suspect many were uncomfortable with the radical elements of the Washington coalition, such as the Slim Coleman-Helen Shiller crowd. They do not want the city to become a permanent encampment for the poor. They favor neighborhood self-determination, but not at the cost of strangling development. For many, Chicago Tribune reporter John McCarron's series "Chicago on Hold" struck a responsive chord.

More broadly, these civic activists believe . . . well, I generalize at some risk, but I think the majority would agree that the expansion of the upper middle class in the city has been a good thing, on the whole. This may not sound like an especially controversial statement, but you'd be surprised. In a recent opinion piece in Crain's Chicago Business, Paul Green of Governors State University wrote, "City problems go far beyond [the] poor souls nearly forgotten at the bottom of an ever-lengthening economic ladder. The gobbling up of once-proud near-Loop and near-lakefront neighborhoods by gentrifiers and their yuppie camp followers also is a danger to the future of Chicago."

When people can say things like this with a straight face, things have gotten seriously out of hand. Regardless of what one thinks about yuppies as individuals, as a class they are a resource of incalculable value.

They provide ideas, leadership, and money. Chicago without them would be another Detroit. Rich Daley would quite likely concur, and for that reason I think many people, including a fair number of civic activists, view his election as a timely corrective.

Can Daley and the civic organizations work together? There is reason to think so. The mayor knows the city has changed since his father's day. In an interview in Crain's he said, "The mayor has to allow development, but under some guidelines. You just can't turn over the city to developers." He may not mean that, of course, and even if he does his idea of guidelines probably isn't quite the same as the civics'. But at least there's some basis for discussion.

Working with the civics offers Daley some immediate advantages. The initiatives they're currently involved with, having to do with the river and transit and so on, will begin to bear fruit within a few months. Daley must run for reelection in only two years and it would be foolish to toss all that work out the window.

But the real value of citizens' groups is that they can help build consensus for change. It is customary for the civics in deciding policy questions to bring in everybody and his brother to comment. This is not the fastest process in the world, but it has the advantage of disarming the opposition.

The history of the past few years is replete with examples of grand civic enterprises that went aground for lack of public support, the world's fair being only the most conspicuous example. An older generation of Chicagoans may say this is because of the lack of strong political leadership. But I think it would be more accurate to say that the city has changed. People are less likely now to sit still for decision-making by fiat. Chicago, like the Soviet Union, has begun to appreciate the value of glasnost. To the extent that Rich Daley believes that and acts accordingly, I think the civics will be willing to help him.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Richard Laurent.

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