Chicago City Council approves casino plan


Mayor Lori Lightfoot cleared a key hurdle to two longtime goals of her first term — delivering Chicago’s first-ever casino and an extension of the CTA Red Line south to 130th Street — during Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

Aldermen voted overwhelmingly — 39-5 — to approve zoning changes required for the $1.74 billion Bally’s casino complex in River West, securing the final city approval needed for the sprawling project that the mayor has billed as a windfall for shoring up pension funds and stimulating economic activity.

Council members also on Wednesday finalized a plan to partially pay for an ambitious southern extension of the Red Line by collecting revenue from a special taxing district that spans from downtown to the South Side Bronzeville neighborhood.

For Lightfoot, the votes on the casino and Red Line extension mark political victories she will likely tout on the campaign trail as she seeks re-election. The casino’s passage is her largest legislative victory in Springfield and, if it goes as planned, will bring significant revenue to the city’s coffers. The Red Line extension, while years away, is also another milestone Lightfoot will claim as a boon to the city’s South Side.

But the casino package has not come without controversy, with some aldermen — including in the downtown wards that will neighbor the site — maintaining discontent with the location and warning it would bring crime and traffic, among other issues. Concern with the Red Line taxing initiative was also raised the previous day by Ald. Pat Dowell, 3rd, over whether it was fair to ask for her constituents to pay for a rail extension that would largely not benefit them.

And for both, there were gripes that the measures were being rushed. Nevertheless, the mayor expressed satisfaction after the votes concluded.

“I just want to say congratulations to the Far South Side,” Lightfoot said after the Red Line vote, giving a special shoutout to the Altgeld Gardens community on the southern limits of the city. “It’s a long, long time coming. It’s absolutely needed.”

The alderman presiding over the 27th Ward where the casino will be built, Walter Burnett, passionately defended the development as “bigger than me, bigger than individuals, bigger than folks’ egos.”

”This is something that three administrations have been trying to do,” Burnett said. “Three administrations, for over 30 years, have been trying to do it. This mayor got it done.”

Alds. Brian Hopkins, 2nd; Anthony Beale, 9th; Edward Burke, 14th; Raymond Lopez, 15th; and Brendan Reilly, 42nd, voted against the casino plan, while the sole “no” vote for the Red Line legislation came from Dowell.

Hopkins rose in opposition to the casino and criticized Bally’s for a land swap deal and what he said were holes in the budget. The company has sold the land to a Chicago real estate investment firm, leasing it back for 99 years and raising up to $500 million to help build the casino.

“This team is scrambling to find the capital needed to see this project to fruition,” Hopkins said. “So it really raises the prospect for us as a city, what do they bring to the table? … They don’t bring the money that they need to make this happen.”

The other downtown alderman, Reilly, warned ahead of his “no” vote Wednesday: “Remember this day. … People in this room raised these red flags now, and I hope to God they don’t come true.”

Ald. Tom Tunney, 44th, the mayor’s handpicked chair of the special committee that put forth the overall casino package, surprisingly found common ground with detractors.

”I would also say, to agree with Ald. Reilly, I think the mayor probably short-circuited her decision,” Tunney, who voted yes Wednesday, said about the choice of Bally’s. “I think we could have been a little more patient. That being said, those arguments about the casino are under the bridge, so to speak.”

Supporters of a casino in Chicago have said such an enterprise is 30 years in the making and will show a strong front for a city as it economically heals from the COVID-19 pandemic. It also will provide residents — and their wallets — an alternative to going to Indiana. Mayor Richard M. Daley tried several times to get a Chicago casino, Lightfoot has said, but the state legislature had “no appetite” to help the city.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot celebrated the passage of an initial City Council vote on the casino deal in May; the final vote came Wednesday.

The complex, planned for land now occupied by the Chicago Tribune’s Freedom Center printing plant at Chicago Avenue and Halsted Street, is to include an exhibition hall, a 500-room hotel, a 3,000-seat theater, an outdoor music venue, six restaurants and, for gambling, 3,400 slots and 170 game tables.

Bally’s, the Rhode Island-based casino chain company tapped to build the Chicago development, aims to open a temporary casino at the historic Medinah Temple by next year and the permanent location in 2026.

On the Red Line extension, Lightfoot still has to find other funding sources, but the Wednesday vote to pay for some of the $3.6 billion extension via a new transit tax-increment financing district was a major step. The TIF district is expected to generate about $959 million and would help fund extending the Red Line south 5.6 miles. But additional funding, especially from the federal government, will be needed.

If all goes according to plan, construction on the extension could begin in 2025, and the project could be finished by 2029. CTA officials have billed its construction as a matter of equity, noting that large swaths of the Far South Side are cut off from rail service, but those communities could stand to shave more than 30 minutes off their commutes with this extension.

Ald. Carrie Austin, 34th, rose ahead of the vote to ask her colleagues to consider her Far South Side community — which will have one less ward following the decennial remapping process that took away her majority-Black ward because of population loss — when weighing the measure.

The retiring alderman, who is under indictment, noted “we are the city limits” when arguing it was unfair to “hinder” the South Side while the North Side was plush with transit options. The other City Council member from the Far South Side, Ald. Anthony Beale, 9th, concurred.

“Our community has been disinvested, disenfranchised and disconnected from this city for a very long time,” Beale said. “For a very long time. … Look deep into your heart and understand that this is important to this community. It’s important to the city.”

Another TIF-related victory was secured Wednesday when City Council approved $8 million of such funding for a Near South Side high school that has been a longtime wish of Chinatown and South Loop residents but has sparked controversy over its proposed site and potential impact on the enrollment of majority-Black schools nearby.

Aldermen voted for the TIF bound by the 24th Street and Michigan Avenue area that will help pay for the land deal to bring the proposed school to the location of the former Ickes Homes public housing complex at 2450 S. State St. Chicago Public Schools officials have said surrounding neighborhood schools would see no more than single-digit declines in their enrollment, but five aldermen remained skeptical and voted no. The latest price tag on the project totaled $150 million, according to city estimates.

Ald. Nicole Lee, 11th, who will soon represent Chicago’s first majority-Asian ward, said she voted yes because the campus will “tear down these barriers” that separate communities such as hers.

“Let me tell you about my father. My father when to Wendell High School from Chinatown,” Lee said, describing his commute to the Bronzeville school. “Students from this area have not had a viable neighborhood option for years. … This is a long time coming. I’m proud to be associated with it.”

City Council on Wednesday also gave a final stamp of approval to Lightfoot’s selection for the next alderman of the 12th Ward, replacing George Cardenas after he retired to join the Cook County Board of Review. Anabel Abarca, Cardenas’ former chief of staff, received unanimous support for her confirmation.

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