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One Central developer says project needs state law but no subsidies

The proposed One Central development would be along Lake Shore Drive, just west of Soldier Field and the Museum Campus and north of McCormick Place. | Provided by Landmark Development

The developer of the One Central site near Soldier Field said Wednesday he is pushing for state legislation to expedite the massive project while leaving its financial risk with him and not the taxpayers.

Robert Dunn, president of Landmark Development Co., said the site is so attractive that he’s willing to pay upfront an estimated $3.8 billion for a transit hub that will improve access and business for adjacent attractions such as the museums and McCormick Place.

The transit hub would connect the CTA’s Orange Line, two Metra lines, Amtrak and a dedicated bus lane, now little used, that shuttles McCormick Place users to and from downtown.

On a deck he would build over the Metra tracks, Dunn foresees a high-rise collection of perhaps 10 buildings covering residential and commercial uses, almost a self-contained city for the Near South Side.

The resulting commerce and tax revenue should earn the project support from the Legislature, government agencies and a public that’s become critical of tax subsidies for developers, Dunn said.

“This is as big a project as we see anywhere in the country,” Dunn told the Chicago Sun-Times. His firm has spearheaded urban development projects, often with stadiums at their core, in Detroit, Minneapolis, and Green Bay, Wis., among other cities.

If he can complete the task near Soldier Field, he’ll have 100% involvement with the teams in pro football’s NFC North division.

“A project like this, done right, can be an incredible catalyst with economic development,” Dunn said. A consultant’s report prepared for the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce said One Central could support 70,000 permanent jobs and generate $120 billion in state and local tax revenue over 40 years of operation.

But while its progress might take decades, Dunn has a more immediate need: state legislation that would let him move forward with the transit hub and other civic space. He’d then recoup his costs over many years, with the state providing part of its revenue from the project.

“We take 100 percent of the risk. If there’s an overrun, it’s my responsibility,” Dunn said.

He’s brought the idea to state lawmakers, including House Majority Leader Greg Harris, D-Chicago, with a goal of getting a bill through the current session. Dunn said quick action is needed because a federal program that could provide $1 billion in financing for the deal is set to expire at the year’s end.

Harris said One Central has “a lot of potential upside for the state” and deserves to be examined, although he’s not sure if action can come in the spring session.

“We have to do our due diligence. But if we can add revenue to the state by growing the economy instead of by raising taxes, it’s something we ought to look at,” Harris said.

He said there is no bill drafted yet. Harris said the House Revenue and Finance Committee is expected to have a hearing on the One Central proposal May 9.

Dunn said he does not need public subsidies in the form of tax-increment financing for the private development phase, which would depend on city zoning rules likely to be modified over many years. He’s projecting a $20 billion cost for offices and residences, with a hotel and healthcare facilities also possible. “We’re going to work with the city to come up with the right plan and that will take time,” he said. For that reason, he said he has no issues with Chicago’s pending change in mayors.

Renderings from Landmark that include skyscrapers purely as placeholders indicate two that could be as tall or taller than the nearby 76-story NEMA Chicago apartment building due to open this year at the south end of Grant Park.

One Central’s transit element will be vital to its success and could take just three years. Any delay in state approval will potentially drive up construction and interest costs, Dunn said.

His plan calls for a spur for the CTA Orange Line that would end at the Metra Electric line just north of McCormick Place. Metra’s BNSF line that currently ends at Union Station also could be extended along existing right-of-way to the same site.

Amtrak service also could be added because its trains already use Canadian National tracks just west of the proposed hub. The elevated tracks bisect the Near South Side with an east-west leg along 16th Street.

Metra would get a new maintenance yard out of the deal.

Mike Gillis, a spokesman for Metra, said the agency has discussed the plans with the developer and continues to review them.