After a virtual town hall webinar May 19, the city is set to take another stab at passing a consolidated plan for Woodlawn this Thursday, though Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) said she still wants more community engagement.
Tuesday’s virtual meeting was quickly convened in response to objections Taylor raised with the Chicago Plan Commission (CPC) on May 8. Taylor argued that the city’s Woodlawn Plan Consolidation Report — which primarily aggregates past plans for the neighborhood in order to provide a framework for development going forward — has not received enough community input. She also said it is not connected enough to the Department of Housing’s affordable housing legislation for the neighborhood, which was unveiled in late February.
The commissioners agreed to defer a vote on the plan until this Thursday’s CPC meeting, with the understanding that the DPD and Taylor would arrange a community meeting before then. That meeting was scheduled as a "community webinar" for Tuesday night.
Before Tuesday's meeting, Taylor told the Herald that she still doesn’t support the passage of the consolidated report this week. (Taylor is not a CPC commissioner, and so cannot vote on the plan herself.)
“I feel like with all of the things that are going on in the city this should be the least of our concerns …. I can’t agree with the plan until we have a real conversation around housing and affordability. I just don’t feel like we are working hand-in-hand and I feel like something is being imposed on us,” she said. “We have town halls just to have them. Are we actually going to listen?”
In a point she echoed again during the webinar, Taylor said meeting virtually might mean failing to hear from certain segments of the community. “I don’t want to get the same old people on the call. I want people who will be engaged, people who aren’t used to using Zoom. I feel like they’re gonna be excluded tonight,” she said.
At Tuesday’s meeting, staffers from the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) and Department of Housing (DOH) presented on the consolidated report and affordable housing ordinance, respectively. Both DPD commissioner Maurice Cox and DOH commissioner Marisa Novara were present, as were Taylor and Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), whose ward includes a small portion of Woodlawn.
The meeting did not set aside any time for community feedback, though members of the audience could submit questions in advance. Primarily, it was another chance for DPD and DOH officials to share the pair of proposals for the neighborhood, and respond to questions or concerns around affordability, development, and community engagement that have cropped up in response. At one point, over 120 people were listening in on the Zoom call, according to a DPD spokesperson.
Anthony Simpkins, managing deputy commissioner at DOH, lauded the engagement process. “This process in Woodlawn is distinguished as probably the most thoughtful and comprehensive community engagement planning process for a neighborhood as long as I’ve been in Chicago,” he said. “I think this is really an unprecedented approach to addressing the concerns and aspirations of the community.”
To help craft the housing legislation, the city formed a Woodlawn working group, made up of neighborhood community organizations, as well as entities like the University of Chicago and Obama Foundation. DPD and DOH also co-hosted an open house in January for neighborhood residents to hear about and give feedback on both the housing legislation and the consolidated report.
Nolan Zaroff, a DPD planner who has taken the lead on presenting the consolidated report, emphasized that the report’s guidelines can be changed even after it has gone through the CPC. “This plan provides guidance, it provides a framework, but it’s also a living document. It can evolve, it can change over time as needs and priorities change. It’s not set in stone,” he said. “This really is the beginning of a process and the beginning of a conversation — it’s not the end of a conversation.”
In response to one public question, Cox also made the case for why greater density was needed in the neighborhood. “I think most folks understand that density that is strategically interwoven into our existing communities is absolutely key to creating a market for a lot of local businesses that we want to see thrive. They need customers. We also know that more density that more density you lower the costs to buy,” he said.
One type of housing the city is planning to increase density with is the Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU). At Wednesday’s City Council meeting, the city introduced an ordinance legalizing ADUs. “It will allow people to stay in their homes and generate additional income and make that neighborhood denser without physically changing the character of it. So I think that density in this case, if it's done gently, can be an amazing asset to the revitalization of a community like Woodlawn,” said Cox.
On Tuesday, before the community meeting, Taylor also sent Mayor Lori Lightfoot a short letter criticizing the housing ordinance. “On behalf of the 20th Ward and the CBA coalition, we respectfully ask that you meet with local Aldermen and community advocates to come together in order to pass affordable housing policies that stop displacement around the Obama Center and ensure a diverse community where everyone can benefit and thrive,” she wrote.
Taylor wrote that the ordinance should set aside 75% of housing built on city-owned vacant land for the neighborhood’s lowest-income households, and allocate more money to the neighborhood home ownership program. She also said that a fund should be created to prevent displacement of current homeowners, and that the legislation should be expanded to include Washington Park.
At Tuesday night’s meeting, Novara, the DOH commissioner, defended the housing ordinance against criticisms akin to those raised in Taylor’s letter. “We had a working group that met multiple times, which included members of the CBA coalition. We had focus groups, five focus groups that zeroed in on several of the issues that were raised by the CBA coalition,” she said,
Novara also noted that the legislation’s right of first refusal provision was initially a demand from CBA organizers. “What we are proposing represents the range of feedback that we got,” she said.
During the meeting, Hairston also disagreed with Taylor, saying that she felt the city’s community engagement process had gone on long enough without any action being taken.
“I’m tired of planning. I’m tired of meeting. We’ve been meeting to meet about meeting …. We’ve had meetings late into the night. We are met out. What we haven’t had is progress,” said Hairston. “I think looking against the backdrop of the coronavirus, when we start coming out of this, we’re going to need those jobs. We’re going to need to have things built.”
Hairston suggested, furthermore, that Taylor had gone back on her own, earlier calls for urgent action. “Ald. Taylor, I recall you saying when we were talking about the CBA and talking about displacement, you kept saying, ‘This is an emergency, people are being put out every day.’ And I took you at your word,” she said.
“Now, we’ve been working, we’ve been meeting, and it’s time to move forward. And now you say, ‘We need to talk more.’ We need to do more. That is the problem in our communities, is that we keep talking about it and we’re not doing it.”
For her part, Taylor outlined what her vision of greater community engagement might look like during her interview with the Herald. “It’s to ask, ‘What do you want to see? What is there? What makes sense?’ Not take these plans — while it’s good to look at these plans — and just say we looked at them and we consolidated them,” she said.
“Me and the mayor, one thing we have agreed on is we don’t want to gentrify another community. We haven’t figured out how not to do it.”