More than a century ago, civic architect Daniel Burnham's Plan of Chicago helped set this city on course to grow and thrive. Burnham understood the power of big ideas to fire the imagination, to dial up the civic flame and create a city of prosperity and, above all, opportunity.
Since November, the Tribune Editorial Board has invited readers to present their own Burnhamesque proposals to tackle crime, education failures, joblessness and other challenges that imperil Chicago. We've fielded an impressive 800 proposals. In previous editorials, we have explored ideas to improve the prospects of Chicago's children and to better use vast swaths of Chicago's real estate to revive its neighborhoods and spur growth.
Today, we focus on proposals that boil down to three words: Follow the money. How city leaders can better deploy public dollars to guarantee that the 21st century is Chicago's Century.
Readers say — and we agree — that this starts at City Hall. Chicago's many arms of municipal government have amassed a huge portfolio of property — warehouses, equipment lots, storage facilities, office space, vacant land "for future use," outposts of all sorts. We can't think of a better place to start redeploying resources than by taking inventory of all that land and equipment with a harsh eye toward what's genuinely needed and the many assets that can be pared, both to generate cash and to build a spirit of ceaseless, aggressive renewal.
As one reader suggested, the city could launch "eBay (or rather eLake) Chicago," an enterprise to sell, or donate to nonprofits, every city-owned lot and structure and piece of equipment that isn't fully used today. The city, like its residents, has hoarded stuff over the years on the theory that it may one day be useful. It's hard to break the habit. But clearing the city's books of excess properties, handing them over to community groups or others who pledge to develop or use them wisely, is a smart way for the city to jump-start neighborhoods without spending huge sums that City Hall doesn't have.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, how about championing a revolutionary, why-do-we-still-own-this approach to Chicago's vast storehouses of stuff?
Many readers urge tax reforms that go far beyond tinkering at the edges of valuations. One reader suggested the city should eliminate property taxes in many commercial districts for small-business owners, as an incentive to set up shop and compete with franchises. Those entrepreneurs would get an even bigger break if they hired local workers.
Another recurring theme: Raid the TIFs. These are special taxing districts designed to lure employers into struggling communities with the promise that revenue will be reinvested in the neighborhood to attract more businesses, customers and residents. Many Chicagoans suspect there's a giant treasure chest of tax increment financing funds being hidden by City Hall. Sorry, there isn't a stash of uncommitted money.
That doesn't mean TIF money can't be put to more creative use. One smart suggestion from a reader: Offer additional TIF incentives to small, independent businesses that open in blighted areas. If TIF money will continue to get shifted, or "ported," between districts, it should help areas that need it the most, instead of downtown.
Many readers' proposals for redeploying public dollars focused on schools. The math is simple: Failing schools = a failing city. CPS has drained reserves, cut central staff and warned, year after year, that it has run out of budget tricks to paper over huge deficits. School leaders warn of rising class sizes and teacher firings.
A truly big solution that we've long urged appeared in several of these proposals: Give parents vouchers, public money they can spend on private school tuition. School choice is popular in Indiana, Wisconsin and more than a dozen other states. But Illinois has dawdled.
One reader said vouchers would "unshackle an entire generation of Chicago's young people" without costing taxpayers an extra dime. This page has strongly urged such a move, which the public education industry feverishly opposes. Lawmakers in Springfield have failed. If they think that people in Chicago and the rest of the state have capitulated, they're wrong. Every state that adopts a voucher program provides fresh evidence of the benefits.
Beyond vouchers, readers propose an array of status quo-busting ideas. Why not year-round schools in Chicago? Let's repurpose some of those recently shuttered CPS schools as boarding schools to help struggling students from tough neighborhoods. Or set up special "school improvement zones" to concentrate financial firepower on struggling schools.
One reader proposed that Chicago's corporations work with CPS to launch "protectorate" schools that would offer safe, military-style campuses with optional student dormitories. These would be significantly funded by corporations, which would help CPS develop a curriculum that stresses college and career. Some of the teachers in these schools would be drawn from private businesses.
For generations, Chicago built a reputation as a city that innovates to solve tenacious problems. But bureaucracies that shepherd public money resist changes that threaten their turf, no matter the potential payoff. That's why every shift of a dollar from one place to another, every cut, elicits moans of Why It Can't Be Done.
It can be. Chicagoans have terrific ideas to rechannel rivers of public money, to lift all boats in Chicago's Century.
A request for your proposals
We invite you or your organization to help craft a new Plan of Chicago. Our goal is to address the city's current challenges holistically, not one by one. Among them: violent crime, underperforming public schools, joblessness, troubled families, population loss and desperate City Hall finances. The more concrete your proposals, the better. And tell us how you would redeploy current dollars, or raise new money, to fund your suggestions. Please include your name, town and phone number with your proposals:
Mail: Tribune Editorial Board, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611
Learn about Daniel Burnham's 1909 plan:
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