Mayor Brandon Johnson’s plan to turn old Jewel-Osco into migrant shelter stalls, but he says ‘winter is not here yet’

Mayor Brandon Johnson’s hope to buy a former Far South Side grocery store and parking lot as part of his plan to create winterized base camps for incoming migrants stalled amid widespread City Council resistance Wednesday.

Allies of Johnson delayed a vote on the purchase themselves because the measure appeared it would fail, although the mayor later told reporters site assessments will continue for his proposed tent encampments that would house new arrivals currently camped out on the floors — or outside of — Chicago police stations.

A parade of aldermen from across the city testified they would follow the lead of local Ald. Ronnie Mosley, who said he doesn’t want the site in Morgan Park used to house some of the more than 3,300 migrants still awaiting placement in a city shelter.

Though the plan can still progress without a sale via simply leasing the former Jewel-Osco at 115th and Halsted streets, the mayor’s apparent inability to muster a majority of council votes in support signals growing mutiny from a faction of aldermen over his response to the asylum-seekers.

It also comes as his mission to establish heated base camps for asylum-seekers before winter appears exceedingly futile.

Frigid temperatures and heavy snow arrived this week while migrants huddled in makeshift tents outside police stations. Johnson insisted Wednesday, however, that he was still on track to meet his deadline.

“It snowed, but winter is not here yet. And so my goal is still to make sure that we have base camps before winter,” Johnson told reporters after the meeting. “There’s a difference between being in a hurry and being in a rush. If you’re in a rush, you can knock stuff over, you can miss stuff. But we do have to hurry up because the clock is ticking. It is. So I’m moving as fast as I can.”

While aldermen debated the fate of the former Jewel site, Gov. J.B. Pritzker told reporters Wednesday federal authorities should warn migrants about the Chicago weather.

“The federal government should at least intervene to communicate with those folks who are being told to get on a bus to Chicago and whatever else they’re being told that we are doing everything we can for the folks who are here but we do not have enough shelter,” Pritzker said.

“With winter coming ... they should convince them that they maybe shouldn’t come to the city of Chicago during the winter and that there are other places in the country they can go.”

After the council meeting, Mosley said he still expects the camps to be set up at 115th and Halsted, despite the fact the land sale was put on pause.

The council’s Jewel debate again ignited recent gripes with the city’s costly migrant response, and pushback from aldermen who said it was unfair to ask already strained neighborhoods to also absorb migrants.

Even so, Wednesday’s delay “absolutely” signals “aldermen will stick together,” Mosley said, adding he hopes the pushback convinces the Johnson administration “to involve aldermen more on the front end. I mean, it’s a hard thing to do. No one wants this. My community has said no.”

Once Mosley condemned the site selection, the mayor’s idea also ran afoul of aldermanic prerogative — a long-standing unspoken agreement among council members to fall in line with the local representative’s wishes on projects in their ward.

“I do understand that this is a federal issue, a humanitarian crisis that we as a city are trying to solve,” Mosley, 21st, said. “But I also understand that I cannot change my pledge to my community.”

Johnson in his post-council news conference shrugged off the discord, however, and said aldermen hoping for more buy-in on these decisions are ignoring the reality of the crisis.

“There are individuals, of course, that wished we had more time,” the mayor said. “But we live in Chicago. We got to get people out of police stations. People cannot sleep outside. They can’t be on the floors at airports.”

Mosley had previously issued a letter saying he was “highly disappointed” that the Jewel base camp plans were made with a lack of notice and amid unfulfilled demands for other investments in his Far South Side community, including another homeless shelter and renovations at his ward’s Chicago Public Schools high school.

Ald. Jessie Fuentes, 26th, retorted during the council meeting that no better alternatives were presented and “those buses will not stop coming, and so we can debate the question, we can debate with the public, but that’s still not going to help us. … There will still be children who are malnourished.”

Johnson’s allies said they will try to build more support for the Morgan Park shelter plan, then take up the measure again Tuesday.

“I think it’s unfortunate,” the mayor’s floor leader Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th, told reporters after the Far South Side property purchase was delayed. “There are people sleeping outside right now. … But at this time, given the conversation and the tone of the conversation, we felt like it was important to give us some more time to discuss this item.”

Albertsons, which owns Jewel, offered to transfer 6.5 acres and the nearly 70,000-square-foot vacant grocery store at 11414 S. Halsted St. to the city for $1. The mayor has pledged that after the Morgan Park base camp winds down, the property will be transformed into affordable housing and retail space dubbed Morgan Park Commons. “I made a commitment to investing in Black Chicago and I’m still committed to doing that ... it’s been darn near naked for a generation.”

Mosely is worried the base camp will threaten a timely groundbreaking planned for November 2024.

Johnson’s team recently disclosed plans to build another base camp on a vacant parking lot at 38th Street and California Avenue in Brighton Park. That decision sparked outrage from neighbors and disappointment from presiding Ald. Julia Ramirez, 12th, who said she was not consulted beforehand.

The Brighton Park site was previously used for manufacturing, and officials are still trying to determine whether it is environmentally safe for people to stay there in tents.

Wednesday’s council meeting also saw Johnson opponents and supporters again resort to the delay tactics that have bogged the body down in recent months.

The back-and-forth began when the council took up a series of referendum questions proposed for the March primary. Only three questions are allowed to go to voters each election, and it’s typical for aldermen to try to crowd questions they don’t like off the ballot.

One such question centered on a signature Johnson campaign promise, his move to raise the city’s real estate transfer tax on expensive property sales in order to fund homelessness services, known as “Bring Chicago Home.”

A bloc of moderate and conservative aldermen was threatening to use a parliamentary stalling maneuver to put off a vote on Bring Chicago Home, so Johnson’s allies preempted the move by delaying the vote themselves.

The measure is now slated be voted on next week, with a deadline of Jan. 2 to make the March primary.

At the same time, Johnson supporters, who oppose another referendum question asking whether Chicago should repeal its sanctuary city status, used the same strategy to delay that one.

Both outcomes elicited outcry from supporters in the council who said voters deserve to have a say on the issue.

“I got to tell you, crowding out a referendum on our sanctuary city status and denying Chicago voters the right to opine on this issue, an issue that was settled many, many years ago … it just seems a shame that we’re employing tactics that date back to the old machine days of Daley,” said downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd.

Chicago’s Welcoming City ordinance centers on official city cooperation with federal law enforcement as well as city policies about inquiring about a constituent’s immigration status.

Mayor Harold Washington first enshrined the citizenship protections in spring 1985, using an executive order to halt the city practice of asking job and license applicants about their U.S. citizenship and stopping city agencies from cooperating with federal immigration authorities.

Recent mayors have affirmed the Welcoming City policy from time to time. Johnson pointed out after the meeting that undoing it would not affect the city’s choice to take in the current influx of migrants, more than 20,000 of whom have arrived since August 2022, when the first busload of asylum-seekers from Texas was sent by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.

“Alders introduce stuff all the time. The question is, what’s the goal?” the mayor said. “Because if the objective is to deal with the crises, which of course are those who are seeking asylum, then it’s not a question of whether or not we should be a sanctuary. If concerned about asylum-seekers, the question should be, how do we influence international policy?”

Also Wednesday, Johnson said he plans to visit Washington on Thursday to ask the Biden administration for “a lot more” for the asylum-seeker response.

The Associated Press first reported that Johnson, along with the leaders from Denver, Houston, Los Angeles and New York wrote to Biden to press for a meeting to “directly discuss ways we can work with your administration to avoid large numbers of additional asylum-seekers being brought to our cities with little to no coordination, support or resources.”

“Look, Chicago is leaning in,” Johnson said. “We have borne the brunt of the responsibility here. That’s not an equitable distribution of how government should cooperate.”

Chicago Tribune’s Jeremy Gorner contributed.