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EDITORIAL: One Central — a grand test case in how to grow Chicago for everyone

The massive One Central development — seen in an artist’s rendering — that’s proposed just west of Soldier Field would include several high-rise buildings with offices, residences, retail space and a hotel.
Backers of the proposed One Central project say the massive 34-acre development would better connect Soldier Field and the Museum Campus with the city. | Landmark Development

The local alderman has questions, and good for her. So do we, and so should we all.

This time around, let’s be heard. Let’s accept nothing less than full grass-roots community participation in the latest proposed big development to come Chicago’s way.

Lori Lightfoot campaigned on this. She argued as a candidate for mayor that ordinary Chicagoans — the people of the neighborhoods most likely to gain or be hurt — should have a greater say in the development of megaprojects like the Obama Presidential Center, “The 78” and Lincoln Yards.

Now Mayor-elect Lightfoot and a reconstituted City Council have a grand opportunity to put those principles into action. They can require the strongest possible transparency and community involvement at every stage of development of One Central, a 34-acre building complex and transportation hub proposed for west of Soldier Field.

Lightfoot, fortunately, appears to get it.

“There’s a new administration that’s gonna be stood up in a matter of days,” she told Fran Spielman of the Sun-Times on Thursday. “And we’re gonna approach these megaprojects in a very different way. I’ve been very clear about that.”

At first blush, there is much to like about the vision for One Central.

It would create a major transportation hub, connecting the CTA’s Orange Line, two Metra lines, Amtrak and a downtown shuttle bus. This could prove to be transformative for a part of town now starved for public transit, dramatically improving access to Soldier Field, McCormick Place, Northerly Island and the Museum Campus.

A tourist could hop on a dedicated bus at Navy Pier and be at the Shedd Aquarium in no time. A teenager, too young to drive, could ride the L from the Northwest or Southwest side and, after a transfer or two, walk over to a concert on Northerly Island or to the Adler Planetarium or the Field Museum. A family on the South Side could do the same, riding up on the Metra Electric.

As many as 10 high-rise buildings would be erected on a deck above a rail yard. Some would be residential, others possibly commercial. According to a consultant’s report prepared by the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, One Central could create some 70,000 permanent jobs and generate $120 billion in state and local tax revenue over 40 years.

We also can see how One Central — a short shot from neighborhoods such as Bronzeville and South Shore — could become a major source of new jobs for the long-neglected South Side. It could even be a catalyst for development on the sites of the old Michael Reese Hospital and, further south, U.S. Steel.

If it is done right. If the numbers hold up.

It is here that Chicago’s new mayor and City Council, as well as the state Legislature, must do the deepest of dives, conducting an independent analysis of every financial projection and concept drawing. And it is here that the voices of the neighborhoods must be heard.

The first big hurdle for the developer, Robert Dunn and his firm, Landmark Development Co., will be to get a buy-in from the state Legislature. Dunn has proposed fronting the money to pay for the transportation center — $3.8 billion — with an understanding that the state would buy the facility over time with new tax revenue generated from the project.

Are those good numbers? Are they reliable? Is that an acceptable use of tax revenue?

And then there are — already — the community concerns.

Less than a week after Dunn debuted his proposal, at a community meeting on the South Side in late March, Ald. Pat Dowell listed a series of reservations in an email to her fellow 3rd Ward residents.

She questioned whether the buildings might be too high or packed too closely together. She raised a concern about safety in a small neighborhood park through which people headed to the transportation center would walk. She said she’d push for the creation of additional park space. She questioned whether the proposed extension of the CTA Orange Line might disrupt the neighborhood.

And that was just a start.

But here again, Lightfoot is sending out the right early warnings.

The developers of One Central, she told Spielman, “have to demonstrate to me that they’ve engaged in a public process where people in the community who will be most impacted have had an opportunity to understand the project and have their say.”

One Central should hold appeal for anybody who understands that growth and development are essential to Chicago’s future. It’s a matter of more jobs, more tax revenue and more Chicagoans. It’s also a matter of maintaining that vibe of vitality — hard to express in words and impossible to put a price on — that thrums through the heart of a great city.

The challenge for Lightfoot and the new City Council is to support this kind of aggressive new development but, more than ever, make it work for all of us.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.