Amid warnings of a political backlash, the Chicago Plan Commission on Thursday evening approved a $300 million plan to transform one of the city’s premier development parcels: the Lincoln Park site of the now-shuttered Children’s Memorial Hospital.
The outcome was never in doubt for a project that will change the face of Lincoln Park — with a pair of 21-story, 270-unit residential towers, 60 condominiums, 156 assisted living units, a five-story health club and 100,000 sqaure feet of retail space.
The Plan Commission is handpicked by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who last week embraced developer Dan McCaffery’s scaled-down plan for the Lincoln and Fullerton site vacant since 2012, when the new Lurie Children’s Hospital opened in Streeterville.
But Thursday’s four-hour hearing, followed by a unanimous vote, gave roughly 400 historic district homeowners determined to shrink the massive project one last chance to put local Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) on the political hot seat.
“There is a majority here who would agree with me that, based on Michele Smith’s actions on this, she will not be our alderman next year,” said Lincoln Park resident Laurel Hansen, prompting cheers and a threat to clear the City Council chambers.
Hansen said she wants the vacant hospital “brought back to life.” But, she said, “We don’t want the high rises. And we don’t want the density and the loading docks on Fullerton. Those high-rises are gorgeous. They would look great in the Loop or on the lakefront. But, not in this neighborhood.”
Neighbor Joy Wingren condemned Smith as “our wonderful alderman who has betrayed us” after campaigning on her opposition to redevelopment of the old Grant Hospital site.
“I voted for her because she ran on the platform that she would never allow this,” Wingren said.
Neighbor Jonas Fisher bemoaned the “massive scale” of a project he argued is “completely inconsistent” with the “historic character” of his neighborhood.
“The development is as massive as it is because Lurie demands a high price [of $51 million] for the land. They may well be a worthy charity. But I should not be compelled to lose property value and essentially to donate to them. I don’t even get a tax deduction for the donation,” Fisher said.
When it was the alderman’s turn to speak, Smith ticked off a string of concessions she forced the developer to make: two high-rises, instead of three; a host of traffic improvements; and three public gardens that would add one acre of open space to a congested neighborhood that desperately needs it.
Smith argued that Children’s Memorial was the “anchor of our community” and, “We needed a new one” to replace the “lost economic vitality.” The project is expected to create 2,500 construction jobs and 250 permanent positions and to generate $122 million in new tax revenue.
“Because of our resolve, the developer was forced to renegotiate its financial arrangements with a large, respected institution, resulting in a $15 million price reduction and a substantially reduced plan,” she said.
“This has been absorbing, unprecedented and hard on our community, but it has also been extremely worthwhile and has resulted in a better plan.”
Well aware that her endorsement could impact next year’s aldermanic election, Smith argued that it was “time to move forward” because Lincoln Park stands at a crossroads.
“Our local businesses are struggling to hang on as the huge complex sits empty. The structure itself has started to show neglect. Rather than abandon this reasonable compromise for an uncertain future, the majority of the ward” wants to support it, she said.
McCaffery added, “Ald. Smith has stood up. It has not been a very easy compromise. You can’t please everybody. But, it’s been a battle well-fought.”
If, as expected, the City Council approves the project, demolition could begin as early as this fall. That would last three to seven months and be followed by three years of construction.