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Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s legacy: How he changed the fabric of Chicago

13 city leaders, architects, politicians, and advocates on how Rahm changed architecture, design, transportation, and real estate

During Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s eight years in office, the constant sight of cranes downtown and near the North Side signaled an era of new buildings and an expanded skyline.

Under his tenure, Chicago has been on a building spree. When the mayor was sworn into office in 2011, the West Loop was still mostly a district of warehouses, and the Bloomingdale Trail had barely begun its transformation into the 606. Chicago didn’t have today’s wealth of new riverfront parks, or constellation of megadevelopments, such as Lincoln Yards, threatening to reshape wide swaths of the city. Emanuel has worked to be the ultimate salesman, convincing corporations to relocate and record-breaking numbers of tourists to visit.

But as much as Emanuel’s time was about new developments, it was also about old problems, including financial issues and pension burdens, inequality, segregation, declining investment in neighborhoods and education, and police brutality. The mayor’s push to get Chicago firmly situated on the global stage, to shape a new future, came during a time when the problems of the past, especially for groups and neighborhoods that have long been ignored, underrepresented, or excluded, demanded action.

Perhaps the ultimate question of Emanuel’s legacy as mayor will be, was the embrace of the future able to heal the wounds of the past? Did policies that he pushed ahead do enough for all Chicagoans, regardless of their neighborhood?

To help explain the legacy of Mayor Emanuel, both positive and negative, as it pertains to transportation, development, real estate, and the city at large, Curbed Chicago asked an array of community leaders, advocates, politicians, and professionals to provide their take on his transformative time in office.

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Ron Burke

Executive director, Active Transportation Alliance

“Under Mayor Emanuel’s leadership, Chicago strengthened its commitment to building safer streets that make it easier to get around without a car. The mayor was a national leader in building better bike infrastructure through a growing network of protected bike lanes, off-street trails, and neighborhood greenways. He set an example that other cities followed, and soon mayors were competing to be more bike-friendly. The mayor secured millions of dollars in federal funding to rebuild Chicago’s decades-old public transit system, leading to more reliable service on the city’s busiest rail lines. He expanded implementation of the city’s policy to prioritize pedestrian safety when building and rebuilding streets, adding more countdown timers, refuge islands and enhanced crosswalks. Despite recent progress, it is still far too difficult to walk, bike and ride transit on the vast majority of city streets. Safety and connectivity challenges are greatest in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, where residents with few transportation options lack access to jobs, schools, health care centers, and other critical services.”

Dorval Carter

President, CTA

“The CTA has undergone nothing short of a renaissance under Mayor Emanuel, who has led an unprecedented level of investment and modernization. Since 2011, the CTA has completed, begun, or announced more than $8 billion of projects across the entire city. Many of these projects—like the completely rebuilt Red Line stations at 95th Street and Wilson, the Loop Link bus corridor, and CTA’s commitment to a 100 percent electric bus fleet—will impact generations to come. From day 1 in office, the mayor understood the critical role public transit plays in Chicago—not just for transportation, but for access, equality, opportunity and economic development. He also found innovative ways to fund improvements, including the nation’s first-ever ride-hailing fee to support public transit and a first-of-its-kind Transit TIF to support the Red and Purple Modernization project and future projects like the Red Line Extension. Simply put, Mayor Emanuel helped move CTA into the 21st century, and build a strong foundation for the future.”

Calmetta Coleman

Senior vice president of external affairs, Chicago Urban League

“While new development projects have brought jobs and additional amenities to downtown and other already-affluent neighborhoods, predominantly African-American neighborhoods on the South and West sides of the city remain marked by abandoned homes, boarded up buildings, and swaths of vacant lots that are the result of decades of disinvestment. And perhaps one of the most memorable aspects of the mayor’s tenure will be inequitable and unfair police treatment of African Americans, which was highlighted by the murder of teenager Laquan McDonald. Emanuel inherited a city that has long failed to prioritize equity for African-American communities, and no mayor can solve these problems alone. However, part of his legacy will be a continuation of Chicago’s decades-long legacy of separate and unequal.”

Dr. Winifred Curran

Urban geographer, DePaul University

“Mayor Emanuel enacted a vision of Chicago as a global city that prioritized shiny development projects over the lived experiences of its actual residents, and focused on the downtown and gentrified neighborhoods to the exclusion of working class communities of color. His legacy is an undemocratic governance process, the trauma of 50 school closures, deep suspicion between communities and the police, and the decline of the African-American population of the city. But also a part of his legacy is the flourishing resistance to his vision of the city that has more and more people questioning whether Chicago needs the kind of strong arm, dictatorial mayor that has so defined its history.”

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Michael Edwards

President and CEO, Chicago Loop Alliance

“Mayor Emanuel was very quick to adopt new ideas and strategies resulting in a better downtown: 20 miles of bike lanes, including protected bike lanes; the adoption of Divvy and the move to contract Lyft to expand service; installation of the Loop Link BRT; the addition of the Washington and Wabash CTA station; and acceptance of ride-sharing services all speak to the way the market wants to access the Loop. The mayor provided vision with the aggressive development of the Chicago Riverwalk, which has had a spectacular impact on the Loop. What was once an area of Chicago where people didn’t want to go is now one of the Loop’s most popular destinations, and the work there isn’t even complete.”

Margaret Frisbie

Executive director, Friends of the Chicago River

“Before Rahm Emanuel even walked in the doors of City Hall, he made a commitment to the Chicago River system and he stuck with it for his entire tenure. Under his leadership, the Chicago Park District invested in river-edge parks, river-edge natural areas, trails, and community boat houses on the North and South Sides. He led the development of a comprehensive green infrastructure strategy to reduce the burden of stormwater pollution and he borrowed $98 million to get the Chicago Riverwalk done. That alone made it possible for tens of thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, of people to finally get close to the water and start to understand that the river is alive and a natural resource.”

Jeanne Gang

Architect and principal, Studio Gang

“In realizing two public boathouses, I had the privilege to see firsthand Mayor Emanuel’s commitment to transforming the Chicago River from a polluted, neglected waterfront into a vibrant destination, neighborhood anchor, and ecological asset for our city. His ability to unite disparate agencies with a forward-thinking vision for an environmentally and economically healthier river will serve and support communities across Chicago for generations to come.”

Jawanza Malone

Executive director, Kenwood-Oakland Alliance

“Chicago has become an even greater Tale of Two Cities. As the number of people facing homelessness increased, and tent city encampments were displaced and reborn along expressways, the Chicago Housing Authority stockpiled more than $400 million intended to provide affordable housing for people. Also, as Chicago’s median income has increased, and construction cranes fill the air, Chicago has seen an exodus of black families, and general loss of public assets, particularly the closure of 50 public schools. In 2015, as parents and grandparents starved themselves on Chicago’s south side as part of a 34-day hunger strike to re-open Dyett High School, Mayor Emanuel cut the ribbon for a $20 million annex to Lincoln School on Chicago’s Northside. In these and other instances, it appeared as if those with wealth and clout were prioritized over the most economically disadvantaged residents of Chicago. Mayor Emanuel’s legacy will be the increased racial and economic disparity that exists in our city.”

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Bonnie McDonald

President and CEO, Landmarks Illinois

“Mayor Emmanuel’s historic preservation legacy is one of winners and losers. The winners were long-languishing, high-profile white elephants finally on their way to rejuvenated life: the Chicago Athletic Association, Chicago Motor Club, Old Cook County Hospital, the Old Post Office and Uptown Theatre. Fulton Market would be a thing of the past without the mayor’s strong leadership on a Chicago Landmark historic district in 2015. The revised Adopt-a-Landmark and Neighborhood Opportunity Fund Programs provide needed funding to neighborhood projects, but not enough to keep up with the teardowns and disinvestment plaguing neighborhoods throughout the city. Only 3 percent of this city’s historic building stock, in the nation’s City of Architecture, is protected. The Chicago Historic Resources Survey has not been updated in 30 years, and does not address buildings built after 1939. And we cannot forget the loss in 2013 of Bertrand Goldberg’s masterful Prentice Women’s Hospital, which qualified for Landmark status and for which 80 notable national and international architects voiced their support for preservation.”

Ward Miller

Executive director, Preservation Chicago

“Part of Rahm Emanuel’s legacy is not only bringing big corporations into downtown Chicago for their headquarters, but also taking on some difficult restoration projects that many considered to be white elephants. I immediately think of the Old Post Office, Cook County Hospital, Lathrop Homes, and the Uptown Theater. These are massive undertakings that preservationists were hoping to stabilize and probably mothball for the next decade. People just assumed they were never going to be redeveloped—at least not in the short term—but they’re moving forward.

Early on, we lost Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Hospital, which was not a good foot to start on and, frankly, it still hurts. But the administration seemed to become more sensitive and sympathetic to preservation in the second term. There’s a feeling that we’re pushing in the same direction when it comes to new landmarks districts in places like Pilsen and the Near North Side.”

Juan Moreno

Architect and principal, JGMA

“I think Mayor Emanuel’s greatest impact has been in restoring Chicago as a place of architectural innovation in the world. The importance of establishing a Chicago Architectural Biennial can not be understated; the positive impact it has had on architectural discourse in Chicago, but more importantly, this discourse has not been centered solely on downtown. It has exposed the architectural innovation currently going on in our neighborhoods.”

Proco Joe Moreno

Former first ward alderman

“Mayor Emanuel has been a leader in facilitating economic development outside of Chicago’s central business district. We worked together to pass legislation to establish, then subsequently expand, Chicago’s transit-oriented development (TOD) ordinances, which allow for increased height and density, along with reduced parking requirements, in new-construction buildings located near transit stations. Besides providing needed housing near transportation lines, TODs have also facilitated the creation of more affordable housing units within prime locations, which was especially the case in the First Ward. As the first Chicago mayor to fully embrace and implement the TOD concept in Chicago, Mayor Emanuel can rightly be considered the “TOD-father.”

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Brenda Nelms and Margaret Schmid

Co-presidents, Jackson Park Watch

“Rahm Emanuel’s legacy will be as a promoter of megaprojects pushed through without real community review, without clarity and transparency about sources of funding and costs to taxpayers, and without proper analysis of the impact on nearby neighborhoods or greater Chicago. The Obama Presidential Center is a prime example of his blinkered focus on development. It represents a missed opportunity to honor former President Obama in a way that would have served not only the Jackson Park neighborhood, but the Southeast Side generally. If built in its current form, the Obama Presidential Center, with its massive road changes and the closely related “professional level” golf course, would bring problems rather than improvements in transportation, affordable housing, and recreation, and would set a precedent threatening the future ‘open, clear, and free’ status of all of Chicago’s public parks.“

David Reifman

Commissioner, Chicago Department of Planning and Development

“During Mayor Emanuel’s tenure, we experienced one of the greatest periods of expansion in the city’s history. It’s been the mayor’s priority to capture as much of the growth as possible in order to put the city on solid footing when it comes to our economic and financial commitments such as pensions. Sure, we spend a lot of time talking about big developments like Lincoln Yards and the 78, but there’s so much more to the story. There’s the redevelopment of the Old Post Office, Salesforce Tower, plus all the neighborhood projects like the Obama Presidential Center, the public safety training academy, the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund, and all the new grocery stores on the South Side. We worked to get everything that we could for as many areas of the city as possible while putting ourselves on a more solid financial foundation moving forward.”

Carol Ross Barney

Architect and principal, Ross Barney Architects

“I worked with Rahm on several projects, but the Riverwalk will probably have the most impact. The most important leave-behind is the way that project changed people’s perception of their river and ultimately their perception of their city. While the Riverwalk itself is a ‘downtown’ project, it is setting the stage for many neighborhood projects that will benefit Chicagoan for years to come. Working with Rahm is fun, exciting, and sometimes frustrating. His energy sometimes obscures a real passion for and understanding of the importance of well-designed urban space.”