The 24-person panel, which is common in other major cities but the first of its kind in Chicago, was coined by Planning Department Commissioner Maurice Cox as a tool for developers to improve the design of their buildings and the city to provide a more thoughtful approach. and ideally a faster review, while maintaining a Chicago tradition of innovative architecture and design that some experts in the field have said have recently become more consistent and driven by developer budgets.

But the creation of the body is ruffling feathers, especially among developers who see it as one more hoop to jump through an already long city review process at a time Chicago can hardly afford to dissuade. new investors. Then there are the Chicago aldermen, some of whom question whether the committee will really be limited to an advisory role – it cannot pass or reject projects itself – and are worried that planners will embark on an early stage. process that most aldermen prefer to control.

This turns what appears to be a well-meaning and relatively harmless group of volunteers into a lightning rod for local real estate investors on the role of the planning department and how much the appearance of a new development should be within its purview.

“My hope was to create a place where we can have a conversation about the built and natural environment and apply it to the real world projects that are going to be done,” Cox said of the committee, which met two times. times so far and will review a handful of large-scale projects of historical significance or involving government grants each month. “If we could use this as a way to speed up the development process, that would be the end result.”

Cox, who spent a decade early in his career practicing architecture in Italy and later taught it at Tulane University and the University of Virginia, says he saw a void in the city ​​development proposal review process after Mayor Lori Lightfoot hired him to lead the department in 2019. Most developers work privately with local aldermen, community groups, and planning department staff to get feedback on their plans before submitting a zoning application for a project to the city. This initiates a more public review process that may require approval from the Chicago Plan Commission, various city council committees, and the entire city council before a project can move forward.

Cox says that a full discussion of the architecture and design of a building can get lost in this process or require a lot of back and forth between the planning department and a developer extending the review. That’s why he wants the committee to inject discussions about things like building setbacks, materials, shadows, and open spaces into the early stages of planning, when it’s easier for developers to remodel. projects.

“We think we’re going to give (developers) days and days off from their approval process,” Cox said. “If we can’t shorten the development process, then this process isn’t working.”

This is far from the first time that municipal authorities have influenced the style of development. Former Mayor Richard M. Daley in 2003, for example, berated architects and town planners for what he saw as a bland design of new buildings in River North. But developers fear the committee – whose members include prominent names such as architects Jeanne Gang and Jackie Koo – will become a more formal part of the review process whose recommendations could be used to block approval of a project even if it meets zoning and use standards. .

A half-dozen prominent local developers who have refused to speak to Crain’s formally about the new committee for fear it would hurt their chances of city approval in the future shared fears that the city would jeopardize future investments. placing too much emphasis on design and potentially delaying project timelines. It’s hard enough for a developer to line up funding for a new Chicago office or apartment building that can generate a strong return for its backers, they say, let alone one that pushes the boundaries. of style.

Some suggest Cox and Senior Deputy Commissioner Melvin Wesley, a seasoned architect and town planner Cox hired in March to oversee the Planning Department’s design office, needlessly delayed projects by adopting overly strict design standards. on the shape, location or materials of a building.

It is still unclear to what extent the implementation of the committee’s recommendations by the developers will influence the decisions of other city commissions on the projects. But few developers can be willing to risk costly project delays if they completely flout suggestions.

The aldermen, meanwhile, fear that the committee will undermine the authority they exercise in their own neighborhoods. Ald. Brian Hopkins, whose 2nd Ward includes parts of Streeterville, the Gold Coast and Lincoln Park, says gathering feedback from a panel of esteemed architects and planning professionals on the design can be helpful, but it be wary of “mission evasion” which could turn the committee into a group that indirectly makes or breaks a project.

“As long as they stay in their lane and only have an advisory role, I’m comfortable with that,” Hopkins says. “If it starts to evolve where there is a potential conflict between Aldermanic authority and the views of that group, we don’t want that group to win where there is a difference of opinion. is the number one concern I hear from my colleagues, and I share that concern. “

Cox says the committee will only serve to help aldermen and developers think about project design at a higher level, and suggests the design group won’t last if they feel it doesn’t add value. .

But he stresses the importance of raising the conversation about building design in a city he supports “has become a little complacent due to its national and international reputation” in the architectural world.

While the city is home to nationally and internationally renowned design firms, “a lot of them don’t actually work in Chicago,” he says.

“I think a city that doesn’t constantly renew itself and ask questions about the state of design is a city that is inherently self-indulgent and will lose that title (as a world-class city) if it doesn’t create so many practical and real places to have a public conversation about design. “


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