In two previous essays, I talked about some of the problems with the proposed mega-development corporation that would oversee projects for South Shore, Woodlawn, and Washington Park. I have discussed the Chicago Way and its flaws, the harm that has been done to neighborhoods as a result of large and badly executed plans by the city, and I have talked about how these bad plans depend on apathy among ordinary citizens in order to break ground.
I have also talked a little about an alternative to the mega-development corporation, but I have not said enough about it. If the top-down approach favored by the wealthy and the ambitious was a lousy deal for regular people but there was no viable alternative, we would have to choose between investment in the South Side and our principles. Fortunately, that is not the case. There is another way – local control over local development.
Let me quickly explain the proposal I am talking about for those of you who are not aware of it. Recently, a group of people and organizations including Byron Brazier from the Apostolic Church of God in Woodlawn, pastor Torrey Barrett from Washington Park, the Chicago Community Trust, city officials, a consultant company out of the East Coast, and others announced plans to create a development corporation that would oversee development in Woodlawn, South Shore, and Washington Park. The organization is intended to direct development that will come as a result of the Barack Obama Presidential Center and other improvements in and around Jackson Park.
When we in the community heard about this plan to assemble politically connected pastors and people representing large institutions to make major decisions on behalf of our neighborhoods, our first reaction was, “What about us?” It was a strong enough and loud enough response that the group immediately announced an application process for three members from each neighborhood to join the board. If they keep their word, that means three people from each neighborhood will be added to a 20- to 25-member board. Even if these neighborhood additions are all advocates for the people (not at all a foregone conclusion), they will be woefully outvoted. Even if all nine (three from each of the three neighborhoods) additions to the board work together, they are still outvoted. Of course, that is no mistake. And that is not what we meant when we said “What about us?”
In my view, this is an attempt to sidestep the existing process, which is already flawed but which allows input from the community. It also assumes that we are not intelligent or capable enough to consider development proposals for our neighborhoods, that others have to do it for us. And it has been announced to us, not presented as an idea. It boldly usurps the power of people to manage their own communities. To say it plainly, who do these people think they are?
The arrogant presumption of this group is stunning. Our communities are not rungs on the ladder of their personal ambition. That they seem to think so is a cause of great concern for us. We also see their predation as an opportunity, however. Because they are poised to strike, we must respond, and that necessity gives rise to a call for a viable alternative – and a reason for the community to consider it.
Our alternative is the neighborhood council. We have examined many options within the context of the Chicago political system, with its unique challenges to residents of the South Side, and we think that it is essential that a deliberative body selected from the community and by the community should become a part of the process proposals have to go through to get approved. Every developer should have to come before the people and answer all of the questions of the community and respond to all of the requirements of the council in order to be approved, just as they have to satisfy the planning department and the alderman.
If one is concerned about managing development pressure, local councils just make better sense than some mega-development corporation. An excellent example of how this approach can work successfully is just to the north of Hyde Park, in the North Kenwood-Oakland Conservation Area. There, developments must be approved by a board selected by the alderman and okayed by the mayor. I have seen major developers held up by very specific changes to materials or design that members of the council wanted. The process is slowed down sometimes, but drive through the Conservation Area today, and you see a thoughtfully developed community, with in-fill projects that are much better constructed and much more in keeping with the scale and style of the existing architecture than a lot of other South Side projects. Local control over development does not scare it off. It makes it better.
Chicago city officials are often just too hasty when it comes to tearing down buildings and approving the grand dreams of developers. The city’s aggressive demolition policies in Woodlawn, for example, have led to a population so low that even the most basic services are scarce. State Street south of Cermak remains largely vacant years after acres of public housing was torn down and developers were awarded contracts to rebuild. The truth is simple, if awkward: politicians cannot be trusted to advance the priorities of the community, not when left to their own devices. Instead, they will be convinced to compromise, and the neighborhood will suffer.
There is no need to end up in this situation. Local development councils ensure that the people have a say in what is built in their community. There are many other advantages to these councils as well, and we will explore them one by one. The ability of residents to manage change in the community is the one that goes to the very heart of what is wrong with politics and building in Chicago and gives the people a way to right it. What our neighborhoods need is not a mega-development corporation. We need to have control over what happens where we live.