Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a proposal Thursday to expand the borders of the city’s Downtown Zoning District — where high-density buildings are permitted — and charge developers for extra square footage to generate revenue that would be invested in economically challenged neighborhoods.
Exactly how much developers would pay is to be determined, but Emanuel says the proposal is a “win-win”: It could generate $40 million to $50 million for disadvantaged neighborhoods and also benefit some developers, who would make millions on new projects.
A cabinet of aldermen and community stakeholders would help decide which neighborhood projects would receive the funding, with Emanuel retaining the ultimate say. The Downtown Zoning District would be expanded in certain areas to the north, west and southwest.
The so-called Neighborhood Opportunity Bonus is an extension of an existing city program, which allows developers extra square footage in exchange for making certain building improvements, like an underground parking garage or an outdoor plaza.
According to the Chicago Tribune, Emanuel noted that those concessions largely benefit the building itself. Some would be eliminated under the new program. Swapping square footage for neighborhood improvement fees instead could spread benefits more widely.
“What I’m hoping is the poetry here is that saying ‘your gain, my loss’ turns into ‘your gain is my opportunity,’” Emanuel said. “That’s how it’s supposed to work.”
What’s unclear is whether this proposal will be enough to counter critics who say Emanuel has not focused on driving economic development in the city’s neighborhoods. Last year a Tribune poll revealed that the majority of Chicago voters believed Emanuel was not doing enough to create jobs throughout the city. Many said his efforts had largely been focused on the downtown area, which would see yet more growth under this new proposal.
Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at jakinney.com.