Mayoral allies regrouped Wednesday and won City Council passage of a zoning change that allows the Chicago Fire soccer club to build an $80 million training center. The vote was lopsided on a plan Mayor Lori Lightfoot pushed but came after an impassioned debate.
The Fire’s plans for a Near West Side location, formerly part of the ABLA Homes, would provide an economic boost for the area while adding soccer pitches for local youth, backers argued. Critics said the nearly 26-acre site should be set aside for the Chicago Housing Authority to meet its commitment to build new units.
The Council approved the plan on a 36-11 vote. For about 45 minutes, alderpersons debated the issue, touching on topics such as the CHA’s track record on delivering new housing, the wealth of Fire owner Joe Mansueto, and alderpersons’ control over zoning. Several alderpersons said they backed the project because it had the support of Ald. Jason Ervin, whose 28th Ward includes the site.
Ervin said the Fire’s project had the backing of Near West Side neighbors, citing community benefits from the team’s investment. Others chimed in with a defense of what’s called aldermanic prerogative, or control over zoning decisions.
“We are in the system where the alderman is the one who represents and knows what’s best, that he or she is the person that comes to this body, advocates for their communities and is expected to answer back to them,” said Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th). “That’s on each and every one of us to make that decision.”
Other alderpersons praised the project as an investment in an area with an overload of poverty and vacant land. “This is a gift for this community,” said Ald. James Cappleman (46th).
Opponents focused on how the CHA-owned vacant parcel could have been used to meet the agency’s backlog of housing commitments dating from its demolition of high-rises. Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) said the community wasn’t getting much from Mansueto, a business leader whose net worth Forbes has estimated at nearly $5 billion. “Mansueto is worth a lot of money. We should be getting a lot more” in the deal, Ramirez-Rosa said.
Ald. Edward Burke (14th) responded with an account of Mansueto’s generosity in funding a charter high school in his ward. Mansueto is executive chairman of the Chicago investment research firm Morningstar, which he founded.
After the Council meeting, Lightfoot, in rare alignment with Burke, praised the Fire for investing in the city and said Mansueto has heeded her call for Chicago’s business leaders to support needy communities.
The team’s proposal has strong backing from Lightfoot but was sidetracked Tuesday when the Council’s zoning committee rejected it on a 5-7 vote when many committee members were absent. With better attendance Wednesday morning, the Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards reconvened to pass the matter 9-5 and immediately reported it to the City Council, setting up final passage.
Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), the committee chairman, backed the project, saying it would make the neighborhood more attractive for residential growth.
The property is generally bounded by Roosevelt Road, Ashland Avenue, 14th Street and Loomis Street.
Tunney said the development would provide income for the CHA to build and improve its housing. He said two citizens panels that advise the CHA have endorsed the project.
In testimony to the committee Tuesday, aldermen heard that besides paying $8 million upfront, the Fire will pay an annual rent to the CHA starting at almost $800,000, with increases in future years. The CHA’s chief development officer, Ann McKenzie, said the lease extends 40 years with two 10-year renewal options.
She said the Fire’s upfront payment will cover the estimated $4 million cost for environmental work needed at the property.
Jhamie Chin, spokesman for the Fire, said the club would like to start construction soon but must await approval of the lease from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights said the CHA and a private developer, Related Midwest, have delivered just 245 of 775 promised units to date at the former ABLA site, now known as Roosevelt Square.
Contributing: City Hall Reporter Fran Spielman