I attended my first official Chicago public meeting yesterday, a Chicago Plan Commission public hearing, and I came away unimpressed. Not with the plans presented, which are glorious. With the Commissioners. If they were any less interested they'd need to have set alarms.
There are many very important issues to face these days in the City Council Chambers. Violence, which seems to receive little priority, and city finances, meaning taxes, which do, are tremendously important. But, that's primarily the job of the Mayor and Aldermen. The job of the Chicago Plan Commissioners is to be interested in development in the City of Chicago. That's it.
I once was a Plan Commissioner in a northern suburb. My position was appointed, as are the positions of these honorable persons. My task for each monthly meeting, as a Plan Commissioner, included a review of evidentiary project information presented to us by the paid professional staff of planners. Their job was to work with architects, developers and other professionals, such as arborists, traffic specialists, and the like to make sure the development was in conformance with whatever measure the general plan laid out for the well-being, prosperity, general good, and safety of the area. We were encouraged early on to be familiar with general good planning practices, and with each project to do our best to protect those principles, questioning the specifics and generalities of each project, never assuming the professionals, whether employed by the city or developer, had our best interests in mind. They can err in judgement and scope, and they can overlook certain aspects of the principles of conformance. That's the reason for the existence of appointed Plan Commissioners, to protect the interests of the general public.
Yesterday's agenda included eight "Matters Submitted in Accordance with the Lake Michigan and Chicago Lakefront Protection Ordinance and/or the Chicago Zoning Ordinance." In other words, there were to be presentations, discussion, and vote on eight matters. By the time the meeting was a little more than three hours old, they had progressed through four, the fourth being the one of my primary interest.
I will say that the four projects were all impressive and each has a certain level of excitement attached that should add to the overall character of downtown, property values in the downtown area, and to the general tax base, should each proceed. The first was a courtesy presentation on the new Apple retail store at Pioneer Court, 401 North Michigan Avenue. I'm not going to review the projects. You can find info on those in print and digital publications today. I'll just say this development will be spectacular.
As will the "Wanda Vista Tower" on East Wacker Drive, as it will become the third tallest building in Chicago should it proceed as presented. A project on West Hubbard was less exciting, a much lower profile than the projects that bookended it in the meeting. Finally, a new tower, part of a three-phase development at 1200 South Indiana, would change the entire profile and character of the South Loop, immediately south of Grant Park and Roosevelt Road.
The one concern a handful of Plan Commissioners had, spurred by a gadfly who was apparently familiar to the Commission and said he represented "all of Chicago," was the commitment to hire minority contractors and workers for these projects. A representative of one of the developers defended his company's record before somewhat foolishly stating though, they don't keep records of how many minorities get hired for their projects. Their attorney, realizing the boner, immediately jumped to the microphone to ameliorate the statement, but the die was cast. The Commissioner who had asked initially for the developer's position responded that his "spirit was not lifted by his answer," and so on. The one new development from this dialogue was the Commissioners requesting the City going forth request records be kept on minority hiring on privately funded projects.
As for any other questions about any of the projects, public comments raised a few, specifically on the South Loop project. The Commissioners? Snooze. Not one question about a 93-story tower on East Wacker Drive. Open space? No. Traffic flow? No. Impact on schools? No. Timeline? No. Now, granted, some of these issues were covered in the presentations. I heard no questions about schools, though, other than the developer of the Wanda project mentioning they had considered it. But, the Plan Commissioners? I guess they just take for granted the pros do their job, and let's move on down the road. Maybe they think they're only supposed to approve these projects to move forward to City Council, so some of these questions are unimportant.
No, you Commissioners are the public's first line of defense. The one comment by a Commissioner on the Apple project, which is already approved and was presented out of courtesy? The rendering by the architect showing the crowd in the plaza next to the Riverwalk didn't include any minority faces and he thought they should take that into consideration in the future.
I can only tell you that as a Plan Commissioner for a small suburb on the North Shore I felt an obligation to read the material presented for the meetings, prepare myself as best I could to take part in an intelligent discussion about the project, and to engage architects and developers, to challenge them if necessary to make sure I got the best concessions I could, whatever they may be, no matter how much they had scraped and clawed to make it the best project they could. Because you can always do better. Nothing is perfect. And, as a Plan Commissioner, you usually only get one shot.
This was only my first meeting. I am sure to attend more. I came away from this one feeling disappointed in our representatives, which probably does not cause much shock to most of you reading this. But, really, if you are a Plan Commissioner and you can't get interested in the character and architecture of the great City of Chicago, you ought to excuse yourself and get on with something that gets your blood pumping.
Or, at least, go buy an alarm clock.
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