More than two months after Mayor Lightfoot appointed Eleanor Gorski as Acting Commissioner of the Chicago planning department, the mayor announced yesterday that Maurice Cox will become the Department of Planning & Development commissioner, pending City Council approval. The news was reported in July by Crain's Detroit, but wasn't confirmed by the Lightfoot administration until Wednesday.
Cox is currently the commissioner of the City of Detroit's planning department, and before that was the mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia, and held numerous jobs in academia, including running the Tulane University City Center. He will become Chicago's new planning leader next month, and Gorski will return to her Deputy Commissioner role.
I talked to Doug Farr, founder of Farr and Associates, an architecture and design firm, to learn more about Cox. Farr knows Cox through Congress for New Urbanism, an organization that promotes sustainable and compact urban design. Farr speaks at CNU conferences and published a book on sustainable cities to which Cox contributed.
"Cox is thoughtful, and has had an equity lens from day one. That will be good to work with Mayor Lightfoot," Farr said. His mandate in Detroit, Farr said, was to "tackle the neighborhoods". There's a frequent criticism in Chicago that planning is done to benefit downtown, and not our neighborhoods. If Cox was able to improve economic and safety conditions, and livability, of Detroit's neighborhoods, that should bode well for Chicago and his time here.
Cox's planning department hired dozens of city planners as well as outside planning firms to develop neighborhood plans, to bring in "fresh ideas".
"He developed high design standards" for Detroit, Farr said, which is something developers weren't used to. Farr described a unique program to involve smaller and less experienced developers. When the City of Detroit offers land or subsidy for a development, it uses its authority to require the lead developer to partner with and mentor a startup developer or developers of color to "give them a part of the deal and help them succeed" to "elevate that firm or someone's career", Farr said.
Another unique initiative in Detroit that I found was a "code hack". It was an analysis, comparing incoming development proposals in three areas against the city's zoning and other codes to find out what, exactly, was on the books that prevented the proposal from coming to fruition. It was called "Mix Tape Zoning", and Cox was quoted as saying, "Let’s visualize the reality of this urban life that we want. Let’s look at where our current regulations don’t allow it and let’s just change the rules."
The result of the project was the Mix Tape Ordinance (adopted this summer) that, among other changes more specific to Detroit, reduced parking requirements for certain business types, allowed adjacent on-street parking to count towards a business's requirements, allowed more types of businesses on "main streets", and introduced certain form-based code similar to Chicago's Pedestrian Street designations.
Farr concluded that Cox has "absorbed the experience of many cities, seeing what works and what doesn't, giving him a deep knowledge of what's going on around the country and has a dedication to equity and design." Farr said, "I don't know Mayor Lightfoot at all, but reading what she's about, Cox seems like a good fit" to lead Chicago's planning department.
Photo by Brandon Choy for Cornell AAP. Cox is center and pointing to the left.