Chicago Plan Commission signs off on $2.5 billion North Branch development

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This aerial view shows what the current site (“River District, center) . | Provided

The Chicago Plan Commission on Thursday signed off on a $2.5 billion development that could someday bring 14 mixed-use buildings and 7,400 more residents to previously-protected industrial land in Chicago’s North Branch Corridor.

The planned development — with 13 acres of open space and a picturesque walkway along the Chicago River — is at 643-to-741 Chicago Ave., a site owned by Tribune Media. It also is one of five sites toured by Amazon as potential Chicago sites for the company’s second North American headquarters and one of two the company’s site selection team “really liked,” City Hall sources said.

Whether or not Amazon chooses the site, the decade-long development has the potential to be a game-changer — if it happens.

It will generate $76 million for Emanuel’s share-the-wealth Neighborhood Opportunity Fund and $13.5 million in Industrial Corridor fees.

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) said he’s particularly pleased the city’s affordable housing requirements will be satisfied by building units on site, instead of by paying hefty fees in lieu of on-site units.

“One of the main reasons why I supported lifting the PMD in this industrial area was to get affordable housing on it. Other than that, it could have stayed industrial for the rest of its life as far as I’m concerned,” Burnett said.

He’s equally pleased that the Chicago Department of Transportation pushed hard for a host of transportation improvements to handle the increased density that may someday include a light rail line connecting North Side neighborhoods to downtown commuter stations.

But Burnett acknowledged some concerns remain.

“It almost made me feel like I’m writing a blank check … because this is a large, massive planned development without a specific developer. I’m not getting the commitment from the developer. And that was kind of challenging for me. It’s like I’m dealing with a ghost or something,” the alderman said.

“But all of those community benefits are very important to the city of Chicago. And hopefully with this planned development, Amazon will still be looking at it and maybe still want to move to this spot. Or, if it’s not Amazon, maybe it’s some other large corporation.”

Construction of Phase One of a project expected to generate up to 19,000 jobs, could start as soon as 2020 and be completed by the third quarter of 2021, officials said.

Plan Commission member Fran Grossman, for one, still has her doubts. She wants periodic progress reports to “see whether it really is viable.”

“The number of projects and I don’t know how many there are that are this big and potentially exciting where, as yet, there’s no money on the table,” Grossman said.

“The city is being wonderful and had created a great plan. But a lot of great plans have died.”

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