Council unleashes North Side land rush despite infrastructure concerns

SHARE Council unleashes North Side land rush despite infrastructure concerns

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

The City Council on Wednesday seized what a North Side alderman called a development opportunity “on a scale rarely seen, probably since the Great Chicago Fire.”

The 46-2 vote paves the way for 760 acres of protected North Side industrial land to be opened to residential and commercial use, despite lingering concern about a shortage of park space and infrastructure to accommodate an avalanche of new residents that nobody at City Hall is prepared to quantify.

That’s only part of the problem for Lincoln Park Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), who joined Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) in casting the only “no” votes.

So is the city’s decision to sell itself short with three kinds of developer fees: for parks and infrastructure improvements; industrial development elsewhere in the city, and development of retail corridors in impoverished South and West Side communities.

In an impassioned speech on the City Council floor, Smith accused the city of settling for “a fraction” of what the development opportunity is worth to developers salivating at the opportunity to develop land along the Chicago River.

She called the ordinance a “mistake of large proportions” with an impact that will be “felt for decades and the fallout will only grow with time.”

“Why isn’t the market used to determine the return on investment that taxpayers deserve? Will the developers who lease and rent their properties out base those fees on a five-year average?” Smith said. “Of course they won’t. They will charge what the market will bear. And so should the city of Chicago to get taxpayers their money’s worth.”

Smith ridiculed city officials for saying they have no idea how much infrastructure will be needed to support “this enormous new community” and what those improvements will cost.

“What tangible lasting benefit is guaranteed to the public when this land rush is over along our priceless riverfront? Concrete bike paths, pocket parks for 10 to 20 toddlers and private green rooftops. Is that adequate for thousands of new residents and 300,000 taxpayers around the corridor?” Smith said.

“Where do families relax? Where do kids play sports? Where will hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans unwind? They will flood to overcrowded baseball and soccer fields and increasingly congested lakefront. And they will wonder why there is so much traffic,” she added.

Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd), who also has a piece of the action, said he’s excited about the opportunity to preside over development “on a scale rarely seen, probably since the Great Chicago Fire.”

He looks forward to bargaining hard for public improvements.

“Where will the park be? Where will the transportation improvements be? When will we get the new Metra station? When will we get the bridge over the Chicago River? When will we get the extension of the 606 trail and how will we pay for it?” Hopkins said.

“Everything that’s led us to this point . . . is just a pre-game warm-up. The real work is now going to begin when we start to look specifically at what will be built where, who will build it, who will pay for it and what will the community benefit from it.”

But Hopkins warned developers that if they continue to share their plans with the media before they first share them with him, “I’m just gonna flat out say `no’ to whatever it is.”

“That’s not how I roll. That’s not how my neighborhood is gonna roll,” Hopkins said.

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.

The ordinance approved Wednesday puts meat on the bone by repealing portions of the Planned Manufacturing District in areas on the north and south ends of the corridor while leaving industrial protections in place on Goose Island.

The ordinance also establishes two sets of fees. Developers of residential and commercial projects previously prohibited would contribute money to a fund used to support industrial projects in South and West Side areas where manufacturing is still thriving.

The city would also create a North Branch bonus system to bankroll mass transit, open space and other infrastructure improvements.

And parts of the North Branch Corridor would fall under 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.

“We figured out a way to take an area and make it work for the entire city — not just one neighborhood or one part of the city, which is why there was such a resounding vote,” Emanuel said. “Usually, things like this end up being so contentious, you can’t move forward. . . . I think we have actually found the right balance here.”

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