North Branch corridor advances, despite park, transportation concerns

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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

Chicago aldermen on Monday took the next step to unleash a North Side land rush — opening 760 acres of protected industrial land to residential and commercial use — despite lingering concern about a shortage of park space and infrastructure to accommodate an avalanche of new residents.

Prior to the final vote by the City Council’s Finance and Zoning Committees, Planning and Development Commissioner David Reifman acknowledged that removing the shackles of a planned manufacturing district would create far more residential units than city planners have previously estimated.

“7,500 sounds very light,” Reifman said.

After eliciting that response, North Side Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) let loose about the “huge impact” new residents would have on transportation that is already “difficult, if not impossible.”

“The opportunity to develop almost 800 acres of property comes only once in a generation,” Smith said. “That opportunity should not be simply jumped at.”

When North Side residents pressed for details on how developer fees would be spent and what specific infrastructure and park projects would be funded, they were met with “no answers” because “there is no master plan,” Smith said.

“Placing the public’s interest in developers’ hands to decide where and how much park land should be required in an area flanked by park-starved neighborhoods is foolish,” Smith said.

“What we’ve been told is, trust that a developer will make a trade to give us a field. That may work in a small area. But in 760 acres open to development of unprecedented growth and speed, our residents have said ‘no.’ ”

Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) was equally concerned about “setting the wheels in motion for a brand new community” without “millions and millions of dollars” worth of infrastructure needed to accommodate those new residents.

“It was originally light rail. Now, there’s no light rail. [Instead there are] bus corridors, bridges,” Tunney said.

“There needs to be a master plan [so] developers know they’re … gonna pay for that bridge. All the necessary holistic changes that are gonna be required to make this a different neighborhood,” Tunney said.

Reifman noted that the city’s “framework plan” for the North Branch corridor includes improvements to be made “over five, 10 and 15 years” as well as a “specific funding mechanism” that imposes developer fees.

“By doing things like the bonuses we’re talking about, we’ve increased access to funds that we wouldn’t have before we approved something like this,” the commissioner said.

“Re-construct bridges that CDOT has already begun reconstructing. Provide pedestrian bridges to extend the walk corridor and access to public transportation. … All of this is contemplated. I fully agree that it’s something we need to do. But we need to get that process started.”

Two months ago, the Chicago Plan Commission approved final guidelines for the North Branch corridor, an area between the Chicago River and Kennedy Expressway, starting at Kinzie Street and stretching north to Wrightwood Avenue.

On Monday, the joint committee put some meat on the bone.

The ordinance now teed up for a final vote at Wednesday’s City Council meeting essentially accomplishes five major goals by:

  • Returning portions of the existing PMD zoning designation to what they were before the protected district was created. Portions of the PMD would remain to support “critical services and existing businesses.”
  • Creating a new “industrial corridor system fund” with fees paid by developers of mixed-use projects that previously had been prohibited. The money would be used to support industrial projects in South and West Side areas where manufacturing is still thriving.
  • Expanding to parts of the North Branch Corridor Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s share-the-wealth plan to let developers build bigger and taller projects in a broader area of downtown provided they pay fees used to support commercial projects in under-served neighborhoods.
  • Creating a North Branch bonus system to bankroll mass transit, open space and other public improvements in that area.
  • Designating the North Branch overlay district to supplement those four regulations, protect critical services and guide land use. New residential use would be prohibited in portions of the North Branch corridor “around key existing industrial uses,” Reifman said.

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), whose bustling ward includes much of the North Branch corridor, said he is more than willing to share 30 percent of the fees paid by developers.

“I could be selfish and say, ‘Hell no. Just spend that money in my ward. Forget everybody else.’ … But I understand the bigger picture. I believe in trying to help other people,” he said.

“I understand if somebody wants to pimp off of this and try to leverage it and get something for themselves. … But, don’t try to block the process in order to do that.”

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