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Rahm Emanuel’s top accomplishments as mayor of Chicago

The outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Even on his way out, he changed development, transit, architecture, and public space in a major way

Rahm Emanuel hit the ground running as mayor of Chicago in 2011, and the final weeks were no exception. Two megadevelopments, Lincoln Yards and The 78, were given the green light. The CTA installed free wifi at 18 downtown stations and the agency broke ground on a new Damen Green Line station. Plus, the full 1.25-mile downtown Riverwalk finally opened.

As he leaves the job for good on May 20, here’s a look back at the six biggest ways he’s affected development, transit, and the public spaces in our city.


Downtown grew up and out
During Emanuel’s eight years in office, construction cranes dotted the skyline as Chicago worked to build for an ever-growing demand of corporate offices, chic hotels, and luxury apartments. But the city’s core didn’t just grow vertically, it spread out too. In 2016, an Emanuel-led initiative expanded the city’s downtown zoning district to 800 acres of new land in River West, the Near North Side, West Loop, and South Loop.

The following year, the administration passed an equally massive rezoning of the 760-acre North Branch Corridor, which opened the door for huge mixed-use developments like Lincoln Yards, the River District, and The 78. City Hall’s aggressive push to land Amazon’s HQ2 and its willingness to approve big Tax Increment Financing (TIF) deals further fanned the megaproject flames.

Growing Chicago’s downtown was the center of Emanuel’s pro-development approach, but his changes to the city’s Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) Ordinance ushered in a flood of apartments in certain neighborhoods by cutting parking garage requirements for buildings near train lines. With new developments came more residents and businesses, but also higher rents and more congestion.

We have a better CTA
From the beginning, Emanuel made public transportation a priority—the city sunk $8 billion (if not more) into improving the CTA. In total, 40 stations were rebuilt or renovated. He convinced architects like Carol Ross Barney to overhaul the new Blue Line’s Belmont Gateway and worked with sculptor, painter, and community leader Theaster Gates to bring his vision to the Red Line’s 95th Street terminal. The CTA also started improvement projects to get trains running faster on some of its busiest lines like the Red and Purple line corridor and the Blue Line. One blemish on Emanuel’s transit record, though, is the Loop Link bus system, which hasn’t made a big improvement on downtown traffic.

Beyond the CTA: Divvy bike share launched, city services were streamlined so roads and potholes could be repaired quicker, and 41 streetscape projects made neighborhoods more walkable. Plus, the Emanuel administration planned a scooter pilot program (an idea that came from his mobility task force report). Transportation was a strong point for Emanuel, and Curbed published a thorough rundown on his transportation legacy here.

There’s more park space
Emanuel had a hand in a lot of major park projects: the creation of Maggie Daley Park, the renovation of Theater on the Lake, and improvements to the Lakefront Trail. From the start, his goal was to make sure “every kid was within a 10-minute walk of a park or playground.” In the past eight years, the Park District added 1,000 acres of green space and improved or built 377 new playgrounds. New facilities opened, like the Ellis Park Arts and Recreation Center, and historic fieldhouses were restored, like the one in Holstein Park. And, more infrastructure projects are on the way, such as Gately Park’s massive indoor track-and-field center and the kaleidoscope-looking fieldhouse at Williams Park.

Emanuel hopes one of his biggest initiatives, Building on Burnham, will turn Chicago into a city with two recreational waterfronts: Lake Michigan and the river. He created the 1.25-mile Riverwalk (which he hopes will be named after him) and The 606 trail. Four new boat houses were also built along the riverfront, and the one in North Center is designed by architect Jeanne Gang. Still to come is 312 River Run, which will create a North Branch recreation area, complete with bike and walking paths.

Since 2011, more than five and a half miles of the river has turned into public space. That’s an impressive change—a decade ago, no one wanted to go near the river, and now 1.5 million people use the Riverwalk.

Tourism flourished and O’Hare got a new look
Emanuel wasn’t just in the business of attracting big corporations and developers to the city. Chicago saw tourism explode during Emanuel’s watch, despite the national headlines focused on the city’s crime and violence. After his first inauguration, Emanuel announced a goal to attract a record 50 million tourists a year to Chicago by 2020. Fast-forward to 2018 and the city had already smashed that target, welcoming nearly 58 million visitors that year.

Travelers will find it a lot more pleasant to fly in Chicago too. In March, the administration selected a team of architects led by Jeanne Gang to design an $8.5 billion terminal modernization of O’Hare International Airport. Emanuel also pushed for Elon Musk’s O’Hare Express, which is now unlikely to happen without strong support from the new administration.

Long-neglected buildings came back to life
With regards to preservation, Emanuel chalked up significant victories when it came to bringing large, mothballed properties back into the fold. Notable projects included the adaptive reuse of the Old Post Office, Cook County Hospital’s Main Building, and the Chicago Housing Authority’s Lathrop Homes. Chicago’s languishing historic movie palaces saw a new life, too. Plans to restore the Uptown, Logan, and Congress theaters all advanced during Emanuel’s time in office.

However, in many circumstances “Rahm the historic preservationist” was a way for the mayor to get private investment in Chicago’s neglected architectural white elephants. After all, the London Guarantee, Atlantic Bank, Chicago Motor Club, and Chicago Athletic Association all became trendy hotels.

The arts became a part of every neighborhood
When the mayor announced he wasn’t running for re-election, Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones wrote that his absence would be a loss for the arts. And he’s right: The mayor spend nine months developing a way to boost the city’s arts and culture (the first such plan in 25 years). He declared citywide campaigns to bring public art and theater to every neighborhood in Chicago. Those programs brought $1 million in public art to communities, and free plays, improv, dance, opera, and puppetry performances to parks. Plus, historic murals across the city are now protected and registered thanks to a new city database.

Early on, the mayor launched Night Out in the Parks which runs thousands of events, from outdoor film screenings to Shakespeare plays to symphony performances. Now in its seventh year, the award-winning initiative will bring 1,200 free events to neighborhoods this summer. For Emanuel, it was important to give families and kids exposure to art, music, dance and theater—and do it for free.

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