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Lincoln Yards at crossroads ahead of mayoral election and zoning vote

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As Chicago’s political landscape shifts, Sterling Bay’s North Branch megadevelopment hangs in the balance

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill/Sterling Bay

As the $6 billion Lincoln Yards megaproject heads to a key meeting of the city’s Zoning Committee, opponents to the controversial plan are putting pressure on committee chair and 46th Ward Alderman James Cappleman to delay the vote.

While Cappleman’s ward may not be located particularly close to the proposed development in Lincoln Park and Bucktown, the elected official has become a central figure in the Lincoln Yards saga since taking over the Zoning Committee role from retiring Alderman Danny Solis amid an unfolding political scandal.

Cappleman has yet to take a public stance on the 15 million-square-foot project since Sterling Bay agreed to add more affordable housing to project. The developer recently announced that it doubled the number of on-site affordable-rate units from 300 to 600.

On Tuesday, the Chicago Teachers Union staged rallies outside of Alderman Cappleman’s ward office and home, protesting a proposed $900 million Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district to support Lincoln Yards. The district would channel property taxes generated by the development back to Sterling Bay to reimburse the developer for infrastructure improvements.

Chicago mayoral candidates Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle have both publicly called on the city to postpone the approval of Lincoln Yards until after the April 2 runoff election.

“Why can’t we wait and let the new mayor and the new city council really evaluate this project and make sure there is a level of transparency so that people can take their measure of it?” asked Lightfoot on First Tuesday political radio show broadcast from the Hideout—an independent music venue near the southern portion of the development. “This is their tax dollars that we are going to be spending in huge numbers.”

Others fear that a delay on such an economically significant development is not worth the potential risks to the city and its image. “A setback for Lincoln Yards would send a powerful message—at precisely the wrong time—that Chicago is no longer open for business,” wrote the Crain’s editorial board. “Everyone loses when provincial minds prevail and Chicago stops thinking big.”

If approved by the Cappleman-led Zoning Committee on Thursday, the Lincoln Yards master plan will need to pass the full Chicago City Council for final approval. While roughly a dozen aldermen have spoken out against the proposal, a majority of the 50-member council would be needed to vote down the plan.

The proposed Cortland/Chicago River TIF district will require approval by the Finance Committee as well as the full Council.