Plan Commission approves North Branch guidelines

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A development plan for the North Branch Corridor envisions the potential for a series of high-rises along the west bank of the Chicago River just south of Chicago Avenue. | City of Chicago

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to unleash billions of dollars in North Side development by opening 760 acres of protected industrial property to residential and commercial development cleared a major hurdle Thursday despite concerns about a business exodus and a shortage of park land.

After four hours of debate, the Emanuel-appointed Chicago Plan Commission approved final guidelines for a North Branch Corridor bounded roughly by the Chicago River on the east, Kennedy Expressway on the West, Kinzie Street on the south and reaching as far as Wrightwood Avenue on the north.

Removing the shackles of a planned manufacturing district is expected to unleash billions of dollars in new development, along with transportation and recreational improvements that include an extension of the wildly popular 606 trail across the Chicago River.

The guidelines will allow up to 50 percent of what is now protected industrial land to be earmarked for “non-employment” use.

That’s what bothers North Side Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), a Plan Commission member who owns Ann Sather’s Restaurants.

That protected industrial land will become far more valuable once it can be used for residential development, and Tunney is concerned that will tempt businesses to run for the hills. He thinks Emanuel’s plan will exacerbate a North Side “land rush.”

“If I was anywhere near … this area here, I would have every incentive to get out if I were a business person. Why stay when the value of the land is more than the value of the business? What we’re doing here is encouraging people to consider moving,” Tunney said.

“We should call it for what it is. The writing’s on the wall for manufacturing in this particular area.”

North Branch Framework plan | City of Chicago

North Branch Framework plan | City of Chicago

Planning and Development Commissioner David Reifman said he appreciates the outlook of an aldermen who serves as the voice of business in the City Council. But Reifman argued that the exodus of manufacturing started long before Emanuel decided to make “modernization of our industrial corridors a priority” for his second-term.

“It’s not something of our making. It’s more something we have to react to. Finkl [Steel] voluntarily left this corridor. Twenty-five acres of Finkl left for the Burnside Industrial Corridor. Stayed in the city, but they left. We now have vacancy on that land. We have to begin addressing that transition,” he said.

“We’re not trying to push anybody out. People are leaving on their own. … We’re trying to work with the hand we’re dealt and maximize the benefit to the city as a whole and to make sure we can support the manufacturing that exists — in Pullman, Roosevelt-Kostner, other places where we’re still seeing that interest.”

With the potential to add at least 7,500 new residents, aldermen Brian Hopkins (2nd) and Michele Smith (43rd) wanted a guarantee of 15 acres of recreational space. They were forced to settle for 10 acres.

Smith went down fighting, arguing that the neighborhoods of Lincoln Park, the Near North Side, West Town and Logan Square are “simply out of places to play.”

“We face a period of unprecedented growth. … The land rush is on in this area. Billions of dollars of investment are expected. With a master plan for this significant a development, this would be the opportunity to correct and plan for the park deficits that exist,” Smith said.

Without “at least 15 acres of contiguous open space,” Smith warned that new and old residents will be “entirely dependent on individual developers and one-off decision-making to address their needs” for recreational space.

“This plan will likely result … in a patchwork of open spaces attached to planned developments, as they are downtown, unsuitable for the kinds of sports and recreational needs,” of the new and old residents, she said.

The plan calls for developers who build residential and retail projects in what is now a protected industrial corridor to pay for the privilege, though the exact fee will be hammered out this summer.

Fees will also be assessed for bigger and taller projects.

The pot of money generated by those fees would be used to accomplish two goals: to bankroll roads, bridges and other infrastructure in areas “transitioning” from heavy manufacturing to lighter uses; and to expand Chicago’s still-thriving manufacturing districts, several of them on the South Side.

Ald. Tom Tunney owns Ann Sathers restaurant. He worries that excessive regulation will drive some businesses out of Chicago. | Sun-Times file photo

Ald. Tom Tunney owns Ann Sathers restaurant. He worries that the new plan for the North Branch corridor will spark a business exodus. | Sun-Times file photo

The most immediate beneficiary of the new guidelines could be Sterling Bay.

The developer wants to build what could be a massive residential and commercial development on a 28-acre site along the Chicago River in Lincoln Park that once housed Finkl Steel.

Another prime beneficiary could be Riverside Investment & Development, owned by former John Buck Co. executive John O’Donnell.

The company wants to build a mix of technology office space, commercial and residential uses on the northeast corner of Chicago and Halsted on land owned by the Chicago Tribune, across the street from the newspaper’s Freedom Center printing plant.

Yet another beneficiary would be the buyer of 18 acres of city-owned land at North and Throop that currently houses an outdated vehicle maintenance facility that will be rebuilt in Englewood.

Transportation improvements could run the gamut — from better bridges to Goose Island, a dozen new pedestrian and bicycle bridges and “under-bridge connections” along the Chicago River to the possibility of a “dedicated public transit-way” built along “existing rail corridors and other rights-of-way.”

Tunney was equally skeptical of those plans.

“We often say, `It can happen. Open space can happen. Infrastructure improvements can happen.’ How do we make that ‘can’ a reality?” the alderman said.

“Light rail requires the federal government. You cannot get a developer to do that. … I just don’t understand how we’re gonna fund these transportation improvements.”

Plan Commission member Linda Searl pointed to what she viewed as a past mistake in approving the plan for Fulton Market.

“Looking back at it and seeing what’s happened since then, the questions might be, did we say enough in that plan? Did we do enough?” Searl said.

Zoning Administrator Patty Scudiero said the difference between Fulton Market and the North Branch is the “next step.”

“The Fulton Market plan did not have an implementation plan that was anywhere near the implementation plan that is coming this summer with this plan,” Scudiero said.

Draft North Branch Framework Design Guidelines by jroneill on Scribd

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