Emanuel’s desperation could benefit Chicago

In his latest attempt to save his reputation and approval ratings, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced he wants to spend more on projects in struggling Chicago neighborhoods using money from downtown developers, according to a Feb. 17 Chicago Sun-Times article.

Emanuel wants to close a loophole, called the “Zoning Bonus Ordinance,” which allows downtown developers to build more square footage if they include features such as parking garages and winter gardens in their developments, the Sun-Times article stated. 

Emanuel, according to the article, proposed eliminating this ordinance, thus closing the loophole. The city now gets some money through development costs but, under Emanuel’s plan, would make developers pay a fee for zoning variances, which would be redirected to areas in need of an economic stimulus.

The city would gain an estimated $40 million in the next three to four years, generating funds to spend on projects in neighborhoods  “facing poverty, high unemployment and other indicators of underinvestment by the private market,” according to Emanuel in the Sun-Times article.

These neighborhoods historically have suffered from a lack of investment and resources, not only from the private sector but also from the city. Throughout his administration, Emanuel has favored areas frequented by tourists over neighborhoods beyond the lakefront, but now he is looking for projects to bolster his waning popularity.

As part of the plan, Emanuel wants to create a “cabinet” of aldermen and community stakeholders to decide which projects will be funded with the new money, according to a Feb. 18 article from the Chicago Tribune.

Emanuel’s desire to appoint a “cabinet” for this project warrants concern because his appointed boards and cabinets, like the mayor-appointed Chicago School Board, draws criticism from community members. 

This money should be spent in areas that truly need it, such as funding the development of new grocery stores in food deserts. In addition, people with a genuine interest in what’s best for the community should decide how the funding is distributed.

A committee in charge of this money should not be motivated by politics or reelections. Projects like this confer an economic benefit, and aldermen will be vying for the funds and playing politics. For initiatives that involve a specific community, Emanuel should turn to interested community members.

The plan also calls for expansion of the downtown area, where developers hope to build high-density buildings, such as those proposed for the South Loop.  While this would generate revenue for funding projects in struggling Chicago communities, the environmental impact of this expansion must be judged on its own merits.

Emanuel’s proposal to redistribute money from affluent areas to struggling areas seems to guarantee zoning variances to developers.

In the Tribune article, Emanuel said politics and his current standing with the city’s black voters did not motivate this policy. However, Emanuel’s approval ratings hit a record low after the video of the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald, according to a Feb. 1 Tribune article.

Emanuel may be desperate to boost his approval ratings, but that desperation could end up helping the city if he actually delivers on these proposals and is held accountable. While these proposals could benefit the city, Emanuel’s true motivations for creating these plans should not be disregarded or forgotten.