The developer of property owned by Moody Bible Institute on the Near North Side revealed his plans to area residents during an online meeting Thursday, promising a pedestrian-friendly design that includes public parks and a variety of housing types.
The multiyear project, led by JDL Development, is expected to go through many revisions before it wins city approval, and could be buffeted by many economic cycles. But James Letchinger, JDL’s founder and CEO, said he’s taking a cautious approach to the eight acres, starting with smaller buildings in the project’s earlier phases.
“We’re really trying to create a neighborhood,” he said in an interview before the meeting. Letchinger said he aims to enliven blocks between River North, the Gold Coast and the former Cabrini-Green public housing site. Moody Bible has decided the area is excess property and has agreed to sell to Letchinger, but it continues its Christian education at its main campus, 820 N. La Salle St.
The tallest buildings in Letchinger’s plan, 47 and 55 stories, would be built just west of Walter Payton College Preparatory High School and come in the final phase. He’s dubbed the project North Union to emphasize its attempt to connect distinctive neighborhoods.
His overall plan calls for 2,680 residential units, 30,000 square feet of commercial space and approximately 1.3 acres of open space. His site is bounded roughly by the CTA’s Brown Line, Oak, Chestnut and Wells streets, although the two tallest buildings would be just north of Oak on what’s now Moody’s soccer field.
In his presentation at the virtual meeting, Letchinger highlighted his firm’s work on the Near North Side and his own residency in the area. “I don’t think there’s anybody more committed to this neighborhood or who has more to gain or lose with this project,” he said. He estimated its budget at $1.3 billion.
Letchinger said his construction could generate $20 million per year in local taxes once the development is complete. As the parcels currently are used by Moody Bible, they are tax exempt. North Union would get no public subsidies,
He said his plan, drafted with Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture and other firms, doesn’t seek to aggressively add density. Letchinger said he’s seeking a zoning change for a planned development only because the property’s size requires it.
“We intend to prove out the neighborhood by starting small in the first phase,” Letchinger said. He said he’s confident about getting financing and the city’s economic prospects after the pandemic but that out-of-town investors are cautious. “The biggest hurdle is the Chicago story,” which includes uncertainty about future taxation and government debt levels, Letchinger said.
North Union is expected to get several months of reviews by community groups before it goes to the Chicago Plan Commission and the City Council for approval.
Two aldermen with a loud voice in that process—Moody Bible’s property falls within two wards—expressed qualified support but said they would await evaluations from residents and city agencies. Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th) pointed to the high interest in the project, with Thursday’s Zoom meeting hitting its maximum attendance of 500. Others viewed the meeting on the YouTube channel of the city’s Department of Planning and Development.
Burnett recalled how Moody Bible students mentored him when he was growing up at Cabrini-Green. “Moody Bible has contributed a lot to the community. I think they deserve to be able to sell their property to help with their Christian education,” he said.
Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) said, “People have a lot to say about this. This developer has expressed a willingness to make changes to win community support.”
Letchinger has proposed housing that includes low-rise townhomes and condos and rental apartments in larger buildings, although future markets probably will alter the mix. He said he will meet demands for affordable housing by providing 236 units at below-market rates on site, and another 119 off site.
The first phase, which Letchinger would like to start late next year, would consist of a 21-story building at 878 N. Wells St. and a five-story building at 232 W. Chestnut St., plus a renovated four-story building at 871 N. Franklin St.