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A Land Deal Benefiting a Billionaire’s Soccer Team Is Muscled Through Despite Objections &#821

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Citing years of broken promises to build affordable homes, a Chicago City Council committee rejected a plan to lease public housing land to a professional soccer team owned by a billionaire ally of Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

That was on Tuesday. Less than a day later, allies of the mayor called a do-over and reversed the vote.

The full City Council then voted Wednesday to approve a zoning change needed to let the Chicago Fire soccer team build a practice facility on the 26-acre site.

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A June story by ProPublica detailed how the land was once part of the ABLA Homes, a public housing development on the Near West Side where 3,600 families lived. After demolishing most of the ABLA buildings and displacing thousands of people, the Chicago Housing Authority promised to build more than 2,400 new homes in the area. So far, it has finished fewer than a third of them.

Lightfoot offered the ABLA site to the Fire late last year, and the CHA board signed off on the plan this spring. It is one of a series of deals the CHA has made to sell, lease or give away its land for nonhousing uses, including Target stores, a private tennis facility and a school running track and turf field. The Fire are owned by Joe Mansueto, founder of the investment research firm Morningstar.

The zoning change was considered one of the easiest steps needed to finalize the Fire lease, since Lightfoot’s allies control the city commission and the council committee that had to sign off. But it turned out that distrust of the CHA led to an embarrassing, if short-lived, setback for the mayor and her team, which had to resort to an unusual ploy for more time.

It’s hardly unprecedented for Chicago mayors to advance their agendas with strong-arm tactics and calculated legislative maneuvers. For example, former Mayor Richard M. Daley once waited until the council was about to adjourn before ramming through the repeal of a law he didn’t like in just a few minutes. Rahm Emanuel mastered a long tradition of letting loyal aldermen use committee budgets for patronage and perks. And Lightfoot fought to keep meetings with aldermen out of public view.

On many occasions, aldermen have been known to vote against ordinances they sponsored or to embrace measures they criticized after getting calls from the mayor. The do-over is another reminder of how Chicago mayors almost always get their way.

In defending the deal, the CHA has said that turning over land — the largest open plot at ABLA — to the Fire will not impact its plans for more housing. The agency has also said residents will benefit from recreational and job opportunities when the Fire facility is built. The team has emphasized similar points in describing the deal as an investment in the West Side.

But after years of watching CHA fail to deliver on its commitments across the city, many housing advocates and aldermen are skeptical. From the beginning of Tuesday’s zoning committee meeting, CHA and city officials were playing defense. “The CHA is well and far behind its goals,” Alderwoman Maria Hadden said at the meeting.

With rising homelessness and thousands of people on CHA waiting lists, she said, “It’s concerning to see such sluggishness.”

“Housing is what we do,” responded Ann McKenzie, chief development officer for the CHA. She said the agency hoped to start building 220 more units at ABLA this fall, split between low-income housing and market-rate buyers.

But McKenzie acknowledged that Hadden was right about the agency falling short of its commitments. Even when the new units are done, the CHA will have delivered less than half the homes it is obligated to under court agreements.

McKenzie vowed more housing will be built. To adjust for the land leased to the soccer team, she said, the CHA would have to concentrate more housing on nearby blocks. But she argued the Fire agreement could bring money and momentum.

“We actually think this is an improved plan,” she said.

McKenzie said under the current proposal the CHA would get $8 million up front plus about $750,000 to $800,000 a year for as long as 40 years.

A group of housing attorneys suggested in a letter to the committee that the plan violated civil rights laws and court orders. McKenzie and a city lawyer said that those issues would be part of a review by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which must sign off any plan to dispose of public housing land.

Alderman Tom Tunney, Lightfoot’s hand-picked chair of the zoning committee, noted: “This is a zoning process. This is not about HUD agreeing with the use of the land.”

But aldermen continued to express frustration with the CHA.

“I came from public housing,” said Alderman David Moore, who grew up in the CHA’s Robert Taylor Homes and now represents a South Side ward. He wanted to see letters of support for the Fire deal from resident leaders.

McKenzie said she didn’t have letters but assured him the CHA had been talking with resident groups for months.

That wasn’t good enough for Moore. “I cannot support this item without a letter of support,” he said.

Alderman Jason Ervin, whose ward includes the Fire site, urged his colleagues to support the zoning change, arguing it would provide a boost to the community. Still, he said, “The concerns that have been raised are valid given what’s transpired with the CHA over the last 20 years.”

When Tunney began the roll call on Tuesday, it was quickly clear the measure was in trouble. Seven aldermen — including Hadden and Moore — voted no. Seven members of the committee were no longer present. And only four joined Tunney in voting yes. The item would not advance out of the committee.

But then, minutes later, Tunney announced that the committee would reconvene Wednesday morning to “reconsider the vote.”

With the help of two aldermen who changed their votes, the do-over on the CHA-Fire deal only took a few minutes.

Tunney started the meeting Wednesday by announcing the committee now had letters from resident leaders backing the Fire agreement. He asked for a motion to reconsider the first vote.

Under council rules, a vote can be reconsidered only if someone from the winning side moves to do so. Alderman Felix Cardona Jr., who voted against the Fire deal on Tuesday, was ready to make the motion. Tunney then called for a vote to reconsider the first vote. It passed 9 to 5 with the help of Cardona and Moore, who flipped from the day before.

Alderman Anthony Beale, a Lightfoot critic who cast one of the no votes, accused Tunney of “skirting our rules” by arranging for a second vote on the proposal.

Tunney brushed off the criticism, then announced that Cardona had moved for a vote on advancing the Fire plan. Cardona hadn’t said anything.

But the committee went ahead with the new vote to advance the zoning change to the full council. This time it approved the Fire deal, 9-5.

Afterward, Moore said the letters from resident leaders swayed him, while Cardona said Ervin persuaded him that ABLA residents were in favor of the proposal. Still, Cardona said he would make sure the council calls CHA officials to a public hearing to explain how they will build more housing.

“As you heard today, all my colleagues have an issue with the CHA,” Cardona said. “So the best thing for us is to bring them to the carpet and have a serious conversation with them.”

A few hours after the committee advanced the Fire deal, the full council approved it by a 37-11 vote. The CHA now has to submit the proposed agreement to HUD for review.

At a press conference later, Lightfoot said the CHA had done “an extensive amount of community engagement” in the ABLA neighborhood “to make sure the development really reflected what the community said they need.” Then she turned to praising Mansueto.

“Joe Mansueto has been very intentional about answering my call for business people to invest in areas of our city that have seen either little to no investment or, frankly, have been disinvested in,” Lightfoot said. “So I’m grateful to Joe Mansueto.”

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