Ballad of the Ballot

Mayoral hopefuls talk architecture and policy before Chicago votes

Paul Vallas, Robert Fioretti, and Lori Lightfoot, three of the candidates running to be Chicago's next mayor (Courtesy Wikipedia and candidates)

On February 26, Chicagoans will go to the polls and choose one of fourteen candidates for mayor, the most seen on a general election ballot since 1901. Once Rahm Emanuel announced he would not be running for a third term and the cohort of dozens of candidates began whittling itself down, The Architect’s Newspaper began looking into the crowded field of candidates to see how they might address critical issues relating to the built environment, architecture, and historic preservation.

The 2019 election is a cacophonous mix of candidates, and even with a number of familiar names from across the county and state, determining a probable winner is difficult. While former U.S. Commerce Secretary Bill Daley and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle have shown to be frontrunners in recent polls, Illinois Comptroller Susanna Mendoza, former Chicago Public Schools President Gery Chico, and entrepreneur Willie Wilson aren’t far behind, and no candidate has been able to crack a majority. Other candidates rounding out the ballot include former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, former Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, former Police Board President Lori Lightfoot, former Alderman Bob Fioretti, State Representative La Shawn Ford, lawyers Jerry Joyce and John Kozlar, and Community Organizer Amara Enyia, who received a surge via a nod and a campaign contribution from Chance the Rapper. All bets are off if no candidate receives a majority of the votes and a runoff election is held April 2.

In November, FBI agents raided the office of 14th Ward alderman Edward Burke, the longest serving alderman in Chicago, over allegations that he extorted the owners of a Burger King after they sought permits to remodel. While both mayoral candidates Preckwinkle and Mendoza have connections with Burke, it’s difficult to gauge how that association will play out at the polls. In January it was revealed that 25th Ward alderman Danny Solis was also under federal investigation for misusing his official office, and that Solis had served as a confidential informant against Burke and had worn a wire in order to deal with his own federal investigation. Chicago has a long history of political corruption and apparently intends to live up to that reputation.

The next mayor of Chicago faces a number of issues connected to the built environment. The city’s tax increment financing (TIF) program, established to jump-start development in blighted areas, has been used on wealthy downtown development projects that arguably need little assistance getting off the ground. With the program running a surplus, City Council members have been calling for reform, a demand that has become increasingly louder as megadevelopments like Lincoln Yards, expected to become a new TIF district, breeze through the Chicago Planning Commission. Every candidate has spoken out on making the TIF program more transparent and accountable.

Candidates have also spoken out about the need for more affordable housing across the city, with some advocating for the return of small accessory dwelling units (ADUs) as a way to increase the number of affordable homes, and others calling for an elimination of the opt-out clause of the Affordable Requirements Ordinance (ARO).

Mayoral candidates also have Rahm Emanuel’s legacy to deal with, whether that means dismantling it or using the initiatives he created and executed during his two terms as a springboard for the future. Aligning with Emanuel and his policies could mean alienating voters who are looking for change, yet Chicago’s political web is threaded so tightly that denouncing Rahm could mean denouncing some of his powerful friends.

AN contacted each of the candidates looking for answers to questions relating to public policy about the built environment. Below are the edited questions and answers provided by every candidate who responded.



The Architect’s Newspaper: The Obama Presidential Center (OPC) promises to bring economic and cultural benefits to the south side of Chicago, yet the Obama Foundation will not sign a community benefits agreement (CBA), and the OPC will subtract public parkland from Jackson Park for private use. How might you as mayor work to ensure that the development will have tangible positive effects on the communities that will be impacted by its construction?

Lori Lightfoot: I am pleased that the OPC will be in Chicago. It represents a significant investment in a community that needs it. Credit should be given to Jackson Park residents who have and continue to raise issues with the OPC’s impact on surrounding neighborhoods. I would work to bridge the current divides to come to an equitable and respectful solution to the remaining outstanding issues.

Paul Vallas: The OPC is an exciting new development. I do believe that the Center would have provided Chicago with even greater benefits had it been sited on the west side of Washington Park where it would have been more directly accessible to CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) rapid transit and could have provided even greater catalyst activity to a neglected corner of the South Side. It is regrettable that the City has agreed to relocate Cornell Drive to accommodate the current plan. At $200 million, the relocation of Cornell is a costly undertaking for a City that is facing severe financial challenges. I would prefer to see the site altered to have the center be less intrusive on public lands, though I realize that this deal may be final—barring any actions on the pending federal lawsuit. 

Bob Fioretti: We need a CBA. Period. A community benefits agreement, as well as conditions, including a new trauma center on the South Side, were aspects I asked for from the start from the project. City council agreed to a CBA on the Olympic bid. There are other properties in the area that are better suited for the OPC. Jackson Park is not the place to put it.

AN: Mayor Rahm Emanuel has stated that he will block the sale of the Thompson Center by the State of Illinois over concerns that the building’s liquidation and potential demolition will disrupt Chicago’s busiest public transit hub. There have also been calls that the structure is a representation of political waste and should be demolished, and a counter argument by preservationists that the building is a masterpiece of architecture.  What do you see in the future for the Thompson Center?

LL: As a lover of Chicago’s architectural history, in general, my first instinct will always be to protect historical treasures. The Thompson Center has had a checkered history and there are valid concerns about maintenance. The fight between outgoing Governor Rauner and Mayor Emanuel should be in the rearview mirror. I would welcome dialogue with the Pritzker administration to devise a plan for the building’s future.

PV: The demolition of the Thompson Center would be a terrible waste. Though it has its design issues and needs work to address the years of deferred maintenance, it strains credulity to think that a sale of the center and moving state workers to other quarters would eventually produce a net savings to taxpayers. I also believe that the center is an important piece of architecture that is worthy of preservation. I think the best option may well be the redesign proposal of the center’s architect, Helmut Jahn, which envisions constructing a tower on the southwest corner of the complex. Such a tower could provide a valuable income stream to the state if properly executed.

BF: I’ve been to Berlin and seen other structures that Helmut Jahn has developed, and I like the Berlin design better. At $300 million it should have been sold a long time ago, and I want to listen to the purchaser and the community. If the whole community says “yes, let’s take it down,” then take it down.



AN: Chicago is world-renowned as a center for architectural thought and practice, as evident by the presence of many American masterpieces and new favorites by Frank Gehry and Jeanne Gang. Yet neighborhoods are losing their historic building stock, many of it designed and built for and by average working Chicagoans. Demolition is changing the character of neighborhoods and making way for developments that could cause displacement, affecting the ability for a community to be affordable. What can we do as a city to better preserve the architectural history of working-class Chicago while also encouraging growth and development?

LL: Much of the city’s history, beauty, and character is found in its neighborhoods. In my 32 years in Chicago, I have lived on the south, west, and north sides. And in that time, I have seen how our neighborhoods have changed. Sometimes for the better, as can be seen from the considerable efforts to preserve and revitalize the Pullman neighborhood, and sometimes not—as is evident in parts of the Southport Corridor and Lincoln Avenue in North Center, where historic two- and three-story buildings have given way to generic, monolithic three- and four-story condominiums.

PV: More needs to be done to make certain that redevelopment in historic neighborhoods be done with as much sensitivity as possible, both to reuse as much of the historic housing stock as possible while also reducing potential blight resulting from insensitive, out-of-scale development projects. Some of this could be achieved by exploring landmarking of additional historic areas. Chicago also needs to develop more programs to spur development of the large inventory of abandoned properties throughout the city’s more economically challenged areas.

BF: It seems like every time we turn around another building is being demolished. I want to slow down this demolition and increase the importance of Chicago’s historic housing stock. As the former president of the Pullman Foundation, I look at what we did there in 1965 as a blueprint. The people rose up to fight the construction of an industrial complex between 111th and 115th Street and Cottage Grove.

AN: In 2013, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) closed 49 elementary schools and one high school, promising students that closing underperforming schools would provide a boost in the quality of education and help liquidate CPS debt. Many of these schools remain vacant and unsold, and their closure has proven to have had a negative effect on CPS students and families. As schools sit empty, they affect neighborhood health, public safety, and economic development. How will you resolve the negative effects of school closures on students and neighborhoods?

LL: We need to give communities the opportunity to improve underperforming schools before deciding on further closures. The mayor and CPS must examine the condition of each building to determine a possible future use. This must be done sooner rather than later so CPS can eliminate unnecessary carrying costs where possible, return land to the property tax rolls, or prevent buildings from deteriorating. If a building is going to be sold, then CPS should work with the surrounding community to identify future uses that can benefit the community. This could include selling a vacant school to a non-profit or for-profit affordable housing developer that will make units available for rent or sale. I envision converting some of these buildings into business incubators that are easily accessible for people on the west and south sides, and using others to provide wrap-around services, such as daycare, job training programs, ESL classes, and health care.

PV: As the former CEO of CPS, I have an intimate knowledge of CPS’s real estate portfolio. I lead the efforts to renovate many of those structures, most of which are solid buildings. My time at CPS was the only period in the last 40 years when CPS’s enrollment actually grew, and as CEO, I never closed a single school. In that time, I also conducted the major renovations of over 350 buildings. I led the effort to purchase and restore the historic Bronzeville Armory, maintaining its exterior and interior design, while reopening it as the nation’s first public high school military academy. Sadly, Chicago is confronted with the reality of declining enrollment and something must be done with these valuable structures to again make them centers for the community. Months ago, I detailed a plan to re-purpose many of those structures, especially as centers for adult learners, many of whom are in need of career and vocational training. Significant untapped state, federal, and foundation funding could be tapped to help pay for these efforts.

BF: The problem is that the black middle class is leaving, and the exodus continues. We had 150,000 empty seats at CPS. Now we have 362,000. Families aren’t going to come back until we make economic changes. I said from day one that CPS won’t be able to resell or repurpose these schools. Homelessness disrupts the atmosphere, so perhaps we transform them to help our homeless kids.

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