Neighborhoods are top priority for Chicago planner

Elizabeth Hollander loves cities. She does not, however, like being a pawn in city politics. Considered one of Chicago Mayor Harold Washington's best appointments and the first woman to hold her particular cabinet post in the city's history, she was on the job as Chicago planning commissioner a full nine months before the Chicago City Council finally approved her appointment without dissent in May.

''It's just silly - nobody ever told me there was any problem with my appointment,'' says Mrs. Hollander, former executive director of the Metropolitan Housing and Planning Council (MHPC) and, as the mayor has said, someone whose ''whole resume says 'planning.' ''

She admits that she also finds it ''frustrating'' that the council majority, locked in a long fight with the mayor on a number of policy issues, is sitting on so many other mayoral appointments. Included on that waiting list: five of Mayor Washington's appointees to her own board of directors. ''It's crazy for me to be operating with (former) Mayor (Jane) Byrne's planning commission,'' says the planning chief, whose agenda includes plans for everything from downtown parking to the 1992 World's Fair.

She says she cares because she is trying to put the stamp of the Washington administration - including its strong interest in neighborhood development - on many of the commission's decisions.

Commissioner Hollander managed successfully to move an innovative $236 million financing plan for Chicago's long-stymied North Loop project through the City Council. But despite her urging, the aldermen have balked at approving $200 ,000 in planning grants to neighborhood organizations working on housing and economic development. ''They're concerned we might fund community groups they don't like,'' she says. ''It's the one thing I've really been stymied on.''

In her view, city planners in older cities face a special challenge these days. They must, she says, think through the implications of the shift away from an industry-based economy, of changes in urban population size and age, and of the ''desperate'' need by many for jobs and affordable housing.

Her department recently reviewed a proposal for Chicago's Chinatown that included new town houses, each with an apartment above it. The spare space would be available for elderly parents, in the Chinese tradition of caring for them, or could be rented. The commissioner says the idea of buildings with extra rental space could apply more broadly across the city.

She says manufactured housing or mobile homes may be worth exploring as a viable alternative to traditional housing for city dwellers on low and moderate incomes. ''We wouldn't rule out the idea of a factory opening here to build such homes,'' says Mrs. Hollander, who also heads up the Mayor's Task Force on the Homeless.

She suggests that public buildings should be built with an eye to more flexible use. ''We need to think about buildings that could be a school for part of their lives and a senior citizens center for another part,'' she says.

What of the vast tracts of vacant land appearing in many older cities as population shrinks? While Chicago's population is expected to bounce back to 3 million by the year 2010 if immigration is not cut off, Mrs. Hollander says, cities must consider setting aside such land for future sale and development; think more seriously about its food-supply prospects (''I'm an urban gardener myself''); and consider selling it directly to homeowners who could use it. Chicago has a short-term program, she says, to identify empty city-owned lots worth less than $4,000 that can be sold at a bargain price to any neighboring property owners who can use it.

Although its plumbing and electric wiring restrictions on new buildings are strict, Chicago is generally considered a pro-development city. The most visible symbol of the relatively relaxed Chicago tradition, says Commissioner Hollander, is the Sears Tower, the world's tallest building - it was built entirely within Chicago's building code, needing no special exceptions from the city.

Rather than slapping on rules, Mrs. Hollander appears to be more interested in persuading developers to think about how their buildings relate to those around them and how they might encourage more street vitality (such as more ground-floor retail space).

''We have some extraordinarily beautiful architecture here - I'm not trying to inhibit creativity,'' insists Mrs. Hollander, who currently serves on the Chicago Commission on Historial and Architectural Landmarks and whose parents, Mildred and Russell Lynes, are architectural historians. ''But there's been a lot of designing buildings as if you were looking at them from a helicopter. I've been saying, 'Think about them from the view of people walking down the street and using them. . . . Don't bring me a plaza when it's just a piece of open space that doesn't do anything for anybody.' Developers like to know what signals the city is sending out. . . . I've been getting a pretty good response.''

''She's already accomplished a lot,'' agrees Leanne Lachman, president of the Real Estate Research Corporation and a MHPC board member. ''She has enormous integrity - she's respected even by those who disagree with her.''

Like many cities with populist mayors these days, Chicago is making every effort to persuade those who develop its downtown to also help its neighborhoods. And Mayor Washington's new economic development plan calls on the city and on local business to buy more in goods and services from Chicago companies - particularly those owned by minorities or women. Mrs. Hollander says she also talks with developers about their affirmative-action hiring plans and about opening more retail opportunities to minority-owned firms.

''It's a whole mind-set of thinking about the health of the city. I believe investments in the social welfare, the social good, are investments in a civilized society.''

It was actually Mrs. Hollander's interest in people that, she says, started her in a planning career. She had been a civil rights activist. An honors political-science graduate of Bryn Mawr College, she says she wanted to ''do something'' for people and was too ''impatient'' to go to graduate school. After college she set her sights on a federal internship in housing rehabilitation in Philadelphia (near her husband-to-be who was at nearby Haverford College).

In trying to set up a job interview she was told first by an official in Washington, D.C., that a woman, particularly one under 25, would never be hired for the job. ''It was the one time I have suffered direct discrimination.'' She persisted, was hired, and has held innumerable jobs in the planning field ever since.

As proof that she practices her professed love of cities, Mrs. Hollander and her husband Sidney, a health-insurance executive, live in Kenwood, on the city's South Side, and enroll their two teen-agers in the public schools. ''A lot of older cities like Chicago are going through an uncomfortable transition, but I'm convinced they have a future. They will if I have anything to do with it.''

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