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Chicago’s tech chief stepping down

 John Tolv| Sun-Times files

John Tolva | Sun-Times files

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Updated: October 23, 2013 5:56PM

Chicago’s chief technology officer is stepping down after 21/2 years on the job.

John Tolva, 41, will step down Nov. 1, according to the mayor’s office. Tolva could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Tolva “feels he has accomplished a lot of what he set out to accomplish” and it’s a good time for him to “step back into the private sector,” said Tom Alexander, a spokesman for Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

While weighing his long-term options, Tolva plans to teach a course on civic innovation at Starter School and serve as both an adviser to the Pritzker Group and a consultant to Code for America.

Tolva is the second tech guru to leave City Hall in the last year, but the momentum continues, Emanuel spokesman Tom Alexander said.

“The mayor is completely committed to the growth of — not only the technology economy but also the technology sector — how people are using technology and how it’s being made available at a low cost like we’re doing with Comcast or by providing free Wi-Fi at Millennium Park and our beaches,” Alexander said.

“We’re getting a lot of attention from companies, other governments and from residents of Chicago, and John has been a great leader in that effort.”

Pressed to identify Tolva’s accomplishments, Alexander pointed to the newly released technology plan for Chicago, the so-called “open data initiative” and the “great progress” that’s been made in providing increased access to broadband.

A top mayoral aide who asked to remain anonymous denied that Tolva’s departure is a blow to Emanuel’s efforts to portray Chicago as the “digital capital of the Midwest.”

“Everyone who leaves after two years is a major issue? This is getting ridiculous. Yes, he’s going back to the private sector, which is where we lured him from. No, the city will not fall back,” the Emanuel aide said in a text message to the Chicago Sun-Times.

“We are a leader in this space, and we’ll continue to be. He will continue to be involved, just like the entire sector is.”

Last summer, City Hall was on the defensive after a failed effort to convert a former Chicago Sun-Times printing plant into a center for housing web-traffic hardware.

Investors who included executives at JDI Realty and Madison Dearborn Partners had reportedly paid $20 million for the 508,000-square-foot plant at 2800 S. Ashland, which the Sun-Times shuttered two years ago.

The investors planned a 10-year commitment of nearly $1 billion, including adding two new data centers at the site, according to an ordinance that the City Council passed on June 26. The ordinance would have let the property owners sell the site without repaying $7.5 million in city tax-increment financing that helped build it 14 years ago.

It was Tolva who argued then that the site was “just as opportune as it has ever been” for a data center, primarily because the building is close to power substations and high-speed fiber lines, and has heavy-duty floors that can bear the weight of computer servers, among other attributes.

Last year, Emanuel dangled the use of light poles, streets, alleys, freight tunnels and unused city-owned fiber to jump-start his predecessor’s failed plan to establish high-speed Internet access to underserved Chicago neighborhoods, industrial corridors and public spaces.

Emanuel hopes to succeed where former Mayor Richard M. Daley failed by leveraging his plan to rebuild Chicago’s crumbling water and sewer system and by dividing the city into 15 commercial corridors with a separate competition in each zone.

Tolva was asked then how Chicago can succeed in delivering a free- or low-cost Internet service when other cities have stumbled.

“The freight tunnels and alleys are key. Most cities don’t have as much as we do. We’re also opening up the streets for water and sewer repairs. For a provider to open up the streets on their own on such a large scale would be prohibitive,” Tolva said. “Because we’re already opening them up and because the city and sister agencies have fiber we own that isn’t being fully used, that’s a big thing we bring to the table. Because it runs along the CTA line and it’s unused capacity, it means they don’t have to build everything. They can piggyback on this unused capacity along the rail lines. And we can’t charge for right-of-way on the CTA, given how it’s funded.”

Free Wi-Fi is already available in Millennium Park, thanks to an agreement quietly reached with Chicago-based SilverIP Communications.

The broader effort called for inviting companies, universities and organizations to suggest ways to leverage the city’s “existing infrastructure and assets” to bring “free or heavily discounted, multi-megabit Internet service over a wired or wireless network” to businesses, underserved neighborhoods and, ultimately, to every park and public plaza in Chicago in each of the 15 zones.

“To further these goals, the city may offer a variety of supporting assets, including access to existing city-owned fiber; right-of-way access to [underground] freight tunnels, water mains and sewers; coordination with planned city construction work to modernize the water and sewer infrastructure; up to $30 million in IT [information technology] spending by the city and its sister agencies and other forms of investment,” the city’s “request for information” states.

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