Chicago has a new Mayor, Rahm Emanuel, and he spent his first Saturday in office doing something aldermen usually do: expediting permits. It seems the University of Chicago – the city’s fifth largest employer- complained that it was taking them 23 months to get permits for decorative streetlights and various construction projects, so he sat down with them to see if he could cut that in half, approve some sort of master plan and get his city departments to coordinate their approvals. This of course has resonance with anyone who has ever dealt with bureaucracy, which is everyone. But there are a few lessons and a few cautions here.
After sorting out U of C’s master plan, Emanuel hopes to do the same with other universities. Make no mistake: universities and hospitals are the ONLY ones building things these days. Both types of institutions have a nearly insatiable appetite for land, which means they are the ones threatening landmarks like Prentice Women’s Hospital. U of C has mostly been taking down serviceable sustainable but otherwise undistinguished flat buildings in the area north of its hospital, which has been creeping north from 58th St for some time.
Helmut Jahn’s latest at U of C
So, lessons? One, clout happens. You are a major employer, you get an expedited process, and it does seem that a bureaucracy unencumbered by the demands of a private real estate development market would be able to expedite the needs of the ONLY builders nowadays, hospitals and universities.
Caution? Expedited process is often slang for “ignore regulations” which again makes all applicants and would-be applicants happy but could lead to much less felicitous results for the community as a whole, for the urban environment, and most pointedly, for the future. Moreover, approval of master plans might mean the loss of certain historic buildings, approved well in advance of the financing needed to replace them. No building and its embodied energy should EVER be demolished for speculation: only when financing is in place.
On the flip side, approving master plans could mean preservation of key landmarks. Emanuel has a golden opportunity here with Northwestern, sitting on the most valuable untaxed land in Chicago. He could approve a master plan that saves Prentice Hospital, expedites Northwestern’s process for their so-far imaginary research center, and perhaps trades them some land for the Prentice site, which could be rehabbed with tax credits and put back on the tax rolls.
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