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Johnson plans to “Cut the Tape” for developers to speed up housing builds

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Mayor Brandon Johnson announced a new plan Friday to streamline and speed up the housing and commercial development approval process and spark construction.

Johnson’s plan to “Cut the Tape” features 100 recommendations to accelerate the city’s slow-moving approval process, most with promised timelines that would see changes made within a year. The much-needed changes will help developers mired in bureaucracy more quickly get shovels into the ground, Johnson said.

“It’s a very arduous process to do business with the city of Chicago,” Johnson said as he announced the plan to a developer-heavy crowd of over 100 people. “Our big ideas in the city really require us to have a process that is smooth and comparable to those who actually want to do business.”

The plan’s 100 objectives include an effort to eliminate minimum parking requirements, give affordable housing developments expedited reviews and hire a “Director of Process Improvement” to lead the tape-cutting charge across city departments.

The not-yet-implemented recommendations would also allow developers to deal with fewer reviews and meetings before starting construction and arm the city bureaucrats they work alongside with better staffing and technology. The end result, Johnson said, will be a cheaper, easier process that brings relief to struggling commercial corridors and waning affordable housing stock.

It remains to be seen whether Johnson’s attack on red tape amounts to much. Chicago mayors have for decades promised to drain the city’s regulatory quagmire as a way to promote private investment, yet business leaders continue to complain they must meet far too many government standards in order to get anything done.

The exhaustive list of reforms began taking shape in December, when Johnson signed an executive order giving over a dozen department leaders 90 days to report back on streamlining possibilities. City leaders also solicited “pain points” from nearly 100 developers, architects, attorneys and other housing creators, Kenya Merritt, deputy mayor of business and neighborhood development, told reporters Friday.

The “pro-business and pro-development” effort also looked to best practices in other big cities, Merritt said.

“We’re at a place where we know we can be better,” Merritt said. “We’ll have some quick wins, but there’ll be some things that we’ll need to lean in in terms of a long-term plan in order to make the systems change around how we do development in the city.”

The effort is one of several recent moves by Johnson aimed at spurring development. Earlier this week, the mayor announced he’d move ahead with an effort to fix up four aging Loop buildings, offering $151.2 million in public money to help convert them into residences. The plan, initiated by predecessor Lori Lightfoot, is expected to create 1,000 new living units, including 319 for rent at affordable rates.

Johnson is also pushing a plan for the city to borrow $1.25 billion to fund housing and development through the City Council. Aldermen could vote on the bond plan supported by revenues from expiring tax increment financing districts as soon as this month.

As it stands, developers have to deal with a long-accepted bureaucratic process that city staff recognize “is broken,” Planning and Development Commissioner Ciere Boatright said.

“Time is money in real estate. so we’re committed to working really closely with the developer so that we have more development, not just downtown but in every single neighborhood in our city,” said Boatright, a former real estate executive appointed by Johnson in November.

Boatright flagged the plan’s intention to eliminate minimum parking requirements as a way to make building housing cheaper and more attractive for developers. The elimination — one of the “10 Big Bets” Johnson’s administration plans to prioritize — would require the City Council’s approval.

“We’re addressing a problem that has been in place for decades,” Johnson said.

The implementation timelines for the report’s 100 objectives range from three months to over a year. The report also names the decision-maker responsible for making each change.

Asked why developers should have faith the policy — with dozens of hands involved in executing so many goals — will actually be implemented, city Chief Operating Officer John Roberson said the long plan isn’t a “wish list,” but a collection of “common sense” initiatives.

“This isn’t going to happen overnight,” he said. “But what we have been given is the direction and the charge that in terms of people, processes and where we are going to be putting our investments through our budget, this is important.”

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