Chicago Fire to build $80M training center on Chicago Housing Authority land
No matter who is elected mayor next month, there will be no undoing the controversial zoning change outgoing Mayor Lori Lightfoot muscled through the City Council allowing the Chicago Fire soccer club to build an $80 million training center on Chicago Housing Authority land.
Lightfoot made certain of that on Monday, announcing she and Fire owner Joe Mansueto had signed the ground lease for the new training center on 23.3 acres of Near West Side land formerly occupied by the CHA’s ABLA Homes.
The site is bounded by Roosevelt Road, Ashland Avenue, 14th Street and Loomis Street. The 53,000-square-foot facility will include two and a half hybrid grass pitches with a hydronic heating system; three synthetic turf pitches protected by an insulated dome between November and March; and a two-story performance center.
Besides paying $8 million upfront, the Fire will pay annual rent to the CHA. It will start at almost $800,000, with increases in future years. The lease extends 40 years with two 10-year renewal options and is expected to generate $40 million in revenue for the CHA over the next 40 years.
“This new partnership … will secure substantial funds to improve aging public housing at ABLA Brooks and Loomis Courts and create long-term employment opportunities for CHA residents. It will serve as a catalyst for future growth on the Near West Side for years to come,” CHA CEO Tracey Scott was quoted as saying in a press release announcing the deal had been sealed.
The Fire “deserves to have a high- quality training facility that not only meets their needs but fosters the growth of talented athletes,” Lightfoot said.
“This potential new facility will both fulfill this need and provide the surrounding West Side community with job opportunities, recreational activities and community gathering spaces. Additionally, the millions of dollars in rental income generated by this project will support the CHA’s efforts to rehabilitate and build affording housing in the surrounding areas,” the mayor was quoted as saying.
Mansueto said his soccer club is “excited to put down roots” in the Near West Side’s Roosevelt Square neighborhood.
“The development of our new facility will provide a state- of-the-art training environment for our players, coaches and sporting staff,” Mansueto was quoted as saying.
“Our facility will also serve as a community programing home to the next generation of Chicagoans, bringing our city together through the sport of soccer.”
In late September, Lightfoot regrouped and won Council passage of a zoning change for the training center shot down by the Zoning Committee one day before.
Two months later, former mayoral challenger Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) asked Chicago’s Board of Ethics and inspector general to investigate Lightfoot for accepting a $25,000 contribution from Mansueto two months after she muscled the zoning change through a reluctant Council.
In a letter to IG Deborah Witzburg and Ethics Board Executive Director Steve Berlin, Lopez said he believed the contribution from Mansueto, founder and majority owner of Morningstar Inc., “represents a gross & familiar abuse of power and, at minimum, a potential violation” of the city’s ethics ordinance.
“My concerns are just the perception of the impropriety of deals being made — public land being given away meant for housing — and the result being less than altruistic. This seems very much like typical Chicago way, pay-to-play politics that the mayor has railed against and ran against when she was elected,” Lopez told the Chicago Sun-Times.
“For a $25,000 donation to come less than two months after receiving 26 acres of public land is something that all of us deserve clarity on,” Lopez added.
“We need to know if this was a quid pro quo involving ... the use of CHA land to build this Chicago Fire training facility. The fact that the mayor had to bring back the Zoning Committee to undo a previous vote just so she could push it forward tells you how much pressure was put to make this deal go through. Now, we know why.”
Christina Freundlich, a spokesperson for the Lightfoot campaign, insisted then that government decision-making under Lightfoot was “firewalled from political campaign activities” and that Lightfoot’s team “executes a rigorous vetting process on every contribution to ensure we have complied with all campaign finance rules and laws.”
Mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson said Monday he opposes building anything on CHA land that is “not public housing.”
However, his campaign manager, Jason Lee, said “if this is already a done deal, we’ll live with it and make sure public housing gets built on other sites.”
Paul Vallas, his opponent in the April 4 runoff, hasn’t taken a public position on the training facility.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot punished her enemies and rewarded her friends in a City Council reorganization that was the first test of her political clout.
Despite a municipal code that empowers the City Council to reorganize itself, alderpersons ceded that power to the newly elected mayor, who was given carte blanche to dictate the number of committees and handpick committee chairs.
Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas may not get that same opportunity.
Finance Committee Chairman Scott Waguespack (32nd), Contracting Oversight and Equity Chairman Jason Ervin (28th) and Rules Committee Chairwoman Michelle Harris (8th) are working behind the scenes to reorganize and empower the Council before a new mayor and Council are seated.
Waguespack denied the motive is selfpreservation for committee chairs who stuck with Lightfoot and now fear being stripped of those positions by Johnson or Vallas.
It’s about making the changes in structure and rules that are needed to turn a Council that has long been a rubber stamp for Chicago mayors into the independent watchdog Chicago voters want and deserve, Waguespack said.
“I wouldn’t mind having Finance again after what we’ve done to try to clean it up. People want to see it continue to move in that direction. But it’s not really about that. It’s more about empowering the Council to be stronger,” Waguespack said.
“Both of these candidates have said that they want to see the Council pick their own committees. On Vallas’ website, it says, ‘Empower the City Council to select its own chairs.’”
Waguespack said “pretty open dialogue” is going on with alderpersons who supported the top four finishers in Round 1 of the mayoral sweepstakes: Vallas, Johnson, Lightfoot and U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, D-Ill.
“People have called and asked if they could have certain committees, and we haven’t started slotting in committees yet. People were kind of just asking around about who’s gonna be where and what people would like,” Waguespack said.
“We’re just soliciting input from aldermen, first on possible rules changes for the next term. And then the other thing was just looking at the possibility of organizing the Council as a group to look at how we’re gonna try to just be a stronger Council, like a lot of people have been saying.”
Waguespack acknowledged the lineup of committees and chairs could not be voted on until after the inauguration in mid-May.
But he hopes before then, a consensus is reached on the number of committees, a potential lineup of leaders, reining in direct introductions and other possible rules changes.
Why wait until after Lightfoot was defeated to claim the Council’s rightful power?
“We were actually working on it before she became mayor. But nobody could get together and decide how we were gonna do it. … There was a lot of argument back and forth,” Waguespack said.
“Nobody ever stood up and said, ‘Can we all get together and try to figure this out?’ Nobody.“
Ervin, who also chairs the Council’s Black Caucus, was one of Lightfoot’s most outspoken supporters. He’d even tried to narrow the field by warning that, with seven African American candidates and a diminished and divided Black vote, the African American community risks “losing it all.”
Ervin made no apologies for waiting until now to stand up to whoever wins the April 4 mayoral runoff.
“Why not now? I can’t speak to before. I can talk about the present and in the future. It’s about the Council empowering itself. We don’t need to seek permission to have a conversation,” Ervin said.
“This poses a unique opportunity. We’re sitting down and having a conversation. Who knows what’s gonna happen?”
Harris could not be reached for comment. Vallas and Johnson both favor a more independent Council, one that chooses its own leaders with input from the new mayor.
Vallas wants to create a “truly independent” Council budget office that has the power to scrutinize spending at all agencies of local government, including Chicago Public Schools.
Vallas is not the first to call for structural change to reawaken the Council.
Former Inspector General Joe Ferguson, who was openly criticized then forced out by Lightfoot, has launched a nonprofit, “ReImagine Chicago,” to do the same thing.
“I go back to the phrase, ‘learned helplessness.’ The mayor runs the City Council. There is no good outcome anywhere in which a single person basically decides everything,” Ferguson has said.
“You need that critical tension. We need a City Council that actually has the expertise and works together collectively through a structure that actually puts the mayor to the test and doesn’t let things just get rammed through.”