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City Council makes it a red-letter day for downtown-area development

Wednesday was a red-letter day for big-ticket development in and around downtown.

The City Council signed off on a parade of projects that, together, could flood an already booming Chicago market with 7,000 residential units, more than 1,200 hotel rooms and 2 million square feet of additional office space.

The projects are located at Union Station, at the Lakeshore East complex that has become a neighborhood unto itself and on a riverfront site owned by Tribune Media that Amazon is still eyeing as a potential location for its second North American headquarters.

“We’re taking care of business here in the city of Chicago. … My goal has always been about creating economic growth and job creation,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel proudly proclaimed during a news conference midway through the busy agenda.

“North Point as a transportation, distribution and logistics facility will be up to 4,000 jobs. Union Station will not only be a new office tower. Union Station will be returned to its glory and create a tremendous economic engine and opportunity for the city.”

The largest of the projects — for $2.5 billion — could someday bring 14 mixed-use buildings and 4,099 additional residential units to previously-protected industrial land in Chicago’s North Branch Corridor.

The City Council signed off on plans for a massive development on Chicago Avenue and the Chicago River currently home to the Freedom Center. | City of Chicago
The City Council signed off on plans for a massive development on Chicago Avenue and the Chicago River currently home to the Freedom Center. | City of Chicago

The planned development, with 13 acres of open space and a picturesque walkway along the Chicago River, is at 643-741 Chicago Ave., a site owned by Tribune Media that includes the Tribune’s Freedom Center printing plant.

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) is 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.

That’ll mean 300 affordable units in the first phase of the project and 520 additional units in phases two and three.

“One of the main reasons why I supported … this [in an] 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 told the Chicago Plan Commission earlier this month.

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 that he feels almost like he’s “writing a blank check” because this is a “large, massive planned development without a specific developer.”

“It’s like I’m dealing with a ghost or something,” the alderman said.

The 455-foot tall office tower atop a River North firehouse | City of Chicago
The 455-foot tall office tower atop a River North firehouse | City of Chicago

But, he said, “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.”

Aldermen also signed off on a 455-foot tall office tower atop a River North firehouse, a 50-story hotel and residential building in the already massive Lake Shore East complex and a $1.1 billion plan to add several new towers to that same complex.

Once a freight terminal for Illinois Central railroad and then a golf course, the site has filled with skyscrapers over the last two decades.

Three towers at Lakeshore East were approved Wednesday.
Three towers at Lakeshore East were approved Wednesday.
Plans for Lakeshore East include a new park.
Plans for Lakeshore East include a new park.

The three new Lake Shore East towers will be built in the northeast corner of the neighborhood rising south of the Chicago River as it flows into Lake Michigan.

Alongside the 50-story building approved separately along the western side of Lakeshore East, the three new buildings would fill some of the last available sites in the project.

The three new buildings would be 40, 50, and 80 stories tall. Plans call for a small public park along the southern edge of the site.

Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) blocked the developer’s original plan, before signing off on a revised version that redesigned the park, repositioned one of the buildings and installed a manned security post at the east end of the park.

Reilly’s resistance also forced changes to the long-awaited plan to develop Amtrak’s property around Union Station.

The first draft would have placed a glass ring of apartments atop the historic train station.

The revision retained plans for a hotel in the top floors of the station’s “Head House,” alongside a 50-story office building on Amtrak-owned land to the south of the site.

A rendering of the new office tower, and the additional floor on the Head House accommodating more hotel rooms, planned for Union Station.
A rendering of the new office tower, and the additional floor on the Head House accommodating more hotel rooms, planned for Union Station.

A rendering of plans for a development by Union Station approved Wednesday. | Provided
A rendering of plans for a development by Union Station approved Wednesday. | Provided