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Rahm’s obsession with downtown development isn’t really about fostering neighborhood growth

The mayor’s new Neighborhood Opportunity Fund throws small entrepreneurs a few crumbs—but the program is a lot of PR hokum.

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In the category of fake news having nothing to do with Donald Trump, Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently released his list of victors in the city's downtown development game.

And the winners are . . . 

Not the big-time movers and shakers who're actually cashing in on the booming real estate markets that've been fortified with ample property tax assistance from city taxpayers.

Instead, in a June 7 speech at the City Club, the mayor chose to highlight nine relatively small south- and west-side businesses that have received a total of $2.3 million in grants, relative crumbs compared to the $55 million that was thrown at a Marriott hotel in one dreadfully bad South Loop deal.

OK, so it's not fake news on the scale of, say, Trump swearing up and down that he's got proof that Barack Obama was born in another country. At least what the mayor says is true.

This situation could be more appropriately categorized as classic Rahm spin—specifically an attempt by the mayor to undercut a proposal by aldermen Rod Sawyer and Gilbert Villegas for more meaningful neighborhood assistance.

The day after his City Club speech, the mayor sent out a press release announcing that a "Chatham vegan restaurant, a North Lawndale plant nursery and a West Humboldt Park art gallery are among 32 initial businesses to receive investments from the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund." The fund is a pool of money the city collects from developers in exchange for letting them build more units on their property than zoning law would normally allow. The more units the developers get to build, the more money they make—and I'm sure their profits are a lot more than $2.3 million. So it's not like this is charity.

"These investments are going to directly support neighborhood entrepreneurs on Chicago's south, southwest and west sides," Emanuel said in the release. "By linking growth downtown directly to growth in our neighborhoods we can ensure the entire city of Chicago thrives for generations to come."

As President Nixon used to say, let's be perfectly clear about this: I'm not hating here. I tip my hat to those entrepreneurs who're getting the grants. I hope you get more—take old Rahm for everything you can get. It's about time he did something for someone other than the city's 1 percent!

But don't be fooled: the booming development deals in and around downtown—including the North Branch of the Chicago River—are a by-product of planning strategies going back to the days of old man Daley. Rahm's just following the playbook: move the poor out of the city center, subsidize the ensuing developments with public money, and let gentrification go to work.

This strategy is not now and has never been about supporting "neighborhood entrepreneurs." The $2.3 million in grants is certainly a pittance compared to the public money that'll be thrown around to help develop many of these properties.

The Emanuel administration has already indicated it will spent tens of millions of dollars, taken from the tax increment financing program, to pay for the redevelopment of the old Michael Reese Hospital in Bronzeville. The mayor also is working with developers to shape Rezkoville, the vacant 62-acre site just south of the Loop, as well as the Old Main Post Office—though he's not yet suggested how much those projects will cost taxpayers.

He's also not said how much it'll cost in public dollars to clear the way for the transformation of the North Branch property on both sides of the Chicago River roughly between Kinzie Street and Fullerton Avenue.

The real estate boom in this area was accelerated by the demolition of the Cabrini-Green housing project—an enormously expensive public venture—just east of the river. By demolishing Cabrini, the city ignited a real estate boom that has made the riverfront land too expensive for industry that's existed there for decades. And so the city will spend tens of millions more, relocating businesses and clearing away the land.

Yes, it was Rahm's predecessor, the second Mayor Daley, who demolished Cabrini. But Emanuel has accelerated the transformation by moving the city's Fleet & Facilities Management headquarters—a complex where the city parks its garbage trucks, snowplows, police cars, firetrucks, and other vehicles—from an 18-acre site along the North Branch of the river to Englewood. Thus he opens up more north-side land for commercial and retail development.

So the south side gets the garbage trucks, and the north side gets the housing and shopping malls and the influx of money to flow into its TIF districts. That's something you'll never see the mayor mention in a press release.

I understand that neighborhoods, like all things, change. And, yes, a healthy downtown is vital to the stability of any city. But these changes didn't just happen by themselves. Furthermore, healthy neighborhoods are vital to the stability of any downtown. So unless the mayor plans to move every poor person out to Harvey or Iowa, he's got to do a much better job of using the downtown real estate boom to help working-class residents and their neighborhoods.

And here's where the Sawyer-Villegas proposal comes in. Last month, after the mayor announced plans to develop the North Branch, the aldermen proposed that roughly 66 percent of the contracts and jobs be given to blacks and Hispanics, since blacks and Hispanics make up roughly two-thirds of the city.

I think they should go even further. They should demand that all the jobs and contracts go to residents of Chicago. Hell, make the developers move to Chicago—just like cops, firefighters, and teachers. If they have to live here, they'll shop here, pay property taxes here, and maybe even send their kids to public schools. Let's have the money we pay them circulate back into our city for once. It's basically the same argument that the first Mayor Daley used to justify making city workers live in the city.

"You know what they say—a rising tide lifts all boats," Sawyer says. "Well, let's make sure all the boats get lifted."

Even Mayor Rahm would have a hard time arguing against that.   v

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