David Reifman has left the building | News | Chicago Reader

David Reifman has left the building 

As the Department of Planning and Development commissioner departs, megadevelopers lose one of their biggest cheerleaders.

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click to enlarge David Reifman - CITY OF CHICAGO
  • David Reifman
  • CITY OF CHICAGO

Alderman Scott Waguespack (32nd) was grilling a witness about the assessed value of property sold by the city to a developer when the witness interrupted.

"With all due respect, Alderman . . ."

"Don't tell me 'with all due respect'," Waguespack snapped. "I'm just asking a question."

The alderman, whom a peer said lacks "the right temperament to get along with people," might've learned a thing or two about respect—or its appearance—from the witness: David Reifman, outgoing commissioner of the city's Department of Planning and Development.

Reifman, whose last day on the job is May 20, was patiently answering Waguespack's questions about the Cortland/Chicago River tax increment financing (TIF) district at an April 8 meeting of the City Council's finance committee.

The TIF district underpins funding of the massive Lincoln Yards complex. The district was eventually approved by the finance committee and the full council—thanks largely to Reifman's efforts on behalf of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who hired him in 2015.

In his résumé, Reifman emphasizes his "experience executing . . . large-scale development proposals, resulting in the creation of tens of billions of dollars of private real estate investment." He got most of that experience—nearly three decades’ worth—as a real estate attorney with law firm DLA Piper, which helped bring taxpayer dollars to such developments as Wilson Yard, Block 37, Boeing's headquarters, and Whole Foods in Englewood.

Chicago magazine put it this way: "When the mayor plucked Reifman . . . for this key City Hall job, developers clinked their shovels in a toast."

The lengthy April 8 meeting saw a final push by Reifman for two of the largest private, taxpayer-funded developments in Chicago: Lincoln Yards and the 78.

Months before the City Council approved both complexes, the planning department's Reifman kept showing up in the press and at public meetings "plansplaining" the need for the combined 28 million square feet of development and $2.4 billion of TIF subsidy.

Such large developments—and their TIF money—undergo many levels of municipal scrutiny and public comment, ostensibly so that the city won't build big, bad stuff and taxpayers won't get ripped off.

Lincoln Yards, the 78, and their TIF funding have withstood at least 15 public hearings since last autumn—taking place before the likes of the Chicago Plan Commission, the Community Development Commission, the City Council's zoning committee, the council's finance committee, and the full council.

Early on, Reifman resolved to get the projects done, regardless of what he might learn at public hearings.

Developments like Lincoln Yards and the 78, he said, "allow us to expand like I don't think other cities can," so Chicago doesn't have a choice. "You grow or you die," he said.

To some, this indicated an ethically challenged duality: Reifman was both a public servant and a megadevelopment cheerleader.

Take, for example, City Council zoning committee meetings: developers and/or their attorneys typically present zoning change requests and respond to questions from aldermen. When Lincoln Yards' rezoning came before the committee, it was Reifman who fielded multiple questions from aldermen and the public.

Reifman likewise had a high profile with two other review bodies: the Community Development Commission, which the city says "reviews and recommends action" on TIF districts; and the Chicago Plan Commission, which "is responsible for the review of proposals" for large-scale developments near the lake or the river, or for extreme land-use changes. These bodies act—at least on paper—as a hurdle that developers must clear before facing City Council scrutiny.

Reifman has served as a mayoral appointee on the Community Development Commission and on the Chicago Plan Commission as an ex officio member. So for Lincoln Yards and the 78, although he sat among commissioners nominally representing the public, Reifman didn't ask the tough questions. He answered them.

This dual duty of planning department chiefs didn't start with Reifman. But for almost four years, he's been its poster child.

Not that he's heavy-handed. At a microphone, Reifman is carefully deferential to prying aldermen and dissident neighbors. This trait was on constant display at the many hours of public meetings that led to the approval of Lincoln Yards and the 78.

Reifman's delivery is measured, sonorous, and detailed. He effortlessly pivots from taxation to zoning to finance, plowing ahead while listeners try to catch up. A longtime observer called Reifman "a very smart man" who "makes it very clear he knows a lot . . . He makes it clear in many ways that you don't."

He also seems to know when to let his guard down.

After a February 19 Community Development Commission hearing on the Cortland TIF district in the sprawling council chambers, a city spokesman brought Reifman to stand in front of a half-dozen reporters lingering in the press box.

Reifman launched into an eye-crossing exegesis of the complex financial instruments the city would use to reimburse developer Sterling Bay for building streets and bridges in the Cortland TIF district.

Midway through, a reporter's query made Reifman pause—"I'll go off the record"—and he let loose an expletive-laced slam at an alderman who'd questioned him at the hearing. It was a "just between us insiders" moment that no reporter quoted.

Two weeks after TIF funding for Lincoln Yards and the 78 sailed through the council, Reifman appeared in a sort of victory lap with Sterling Bay principal (and billionaire family scion) Keating Crown at an architecture talk on the IIT campus.

During an hour-long panel in the bright, window-rich hall of a sparkling new building, Reifman perched on a stool and chatted breezily with architecture professionals and students—a stark contrast to public meetings in the preceding months, where in windowless rooms he'd endured endless screeds by dozens of megadevelopment critics.

Reifman bunted at a stream of softball questions about transit access and legacy structures—until an activist stood up and scolded him about the large city subsidy to Sterling Bay ("This is the rich getting richer") and the dearth of affordable units in Lincoln Yards. Reifman, keeping his lawyerly cool, tossed off a quick but pointed rebuttal.

Then the panel was over. Reifman had freed himself from gathered students, and was trying to leave.

He'd just dodged the irate activist and was nearing an exit when a reporter stopped him with a question. Then, after shaking hands with several admirers, he turned to find yet another reporter.

"You're everywhere!" he said.

So, it seems, had been Reifman.  v

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