Pending Chicago projects can relieve the pandemic blahs

With neighborhood revival in mind, here are some developments that could help the city rebound in 2021.

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A rendering of the proposed esports arena at 2500 S. Wabash Ave.


What a year, eh? When it started, the public discourse was about impeachment, and who even remembers that now?

A persistent, invisible threat to life and livelihood will tend to make you forget former cares and reorder priorities. In 2020, the pandemic altered life so profoundly that for many Chicagoans, their relationship to each other and to city institutions changed. For many, work has been severed from a traditional place to do it, surrounded by colleagues or from standard commuting patterns.

Much has been written about whether the glue that binds cities together will give way because of the pandemic. Luckily, trends have a way of smoothing out over time. For every tech worker who decamps for Idaho or rustic Michigan, somebody else will toy with the option but stay put, whether it’s because a small-town music scene isn’t any good or there’s a real deficit in health care just about anywhere beyond metro areas.

Chicago Enterprise bug

For Chicago, 2021 is shaping up as a year to get back on its feet — a real positive, all things considered. It brings back confidence, and capital is sure to follow. The city needs investment across its neighborhoods. Perhaps the lessons from this year’s demonstrations over social injustice will be fresh enough to ensure that investments are more equitable.

Construction plans being laid in various communities offer signs of urban revival — not calling it “renewal” — with a notable involvement from nonprofit organizations. Here are a few proposals somewhat unique:

• At 2500 S. Wabash Ave., the developer who built the Wit Hotel at 201 N. State St. is touting a $30 million e-sports arena called Surge. Scott Greenberg, president of Lincolnshire-based ECD, is promising an IMAX-like experience in virtual reality for up to 1,200 gamers and those who watch them. The site is just the other side of I-55 from McCormick Place. Greenberg also plans a parking and retail site at 2601 S. Wabash to serve the facility. Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) and neighborhood groups back the plan, so city approval should come soon. Greenberg is aiming for mid-2022 completion. Might as well get started on this before these ventures pop up in old department stores in the suburbs.

• Last week, I reported the Chicago Cubs are eyeing the old Silver Shovel site, nearly 21 acres at Roosevelt Road and Kostner Avenue, for a baseball-oriented youth academy. The Cubs’ plan will be evaluated against other proposals for the site, because the city invited developer interest. But the Cubs could be a welcome lift for Lawndale families. The site is associated with a 1990s scandal over illegal dumping that spoke volumes over how poor neighborhoods get treated.

• On a similar theme is a proposal for a North Austin Community Center at 1830 N. LeClaire Ave., a venture of the By the Hand Club for Kids and Grace and Peace Fellowship. The nonprofit developer Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives is managing the project using New Markets Tax Credits. Its president, David Doig, said the $30 million facility could be ready by summer 2022. It will include indoor turf fields, basketball and volleyball courts, and space for after-school programs.

The Lawndale and North Austin projects would be victories for Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Invest South/West program, for which other plans are in the works. City officials have gotten proposals to enhance three commercial strips in Austin, Englewood and Auburn Gresham. The interest in Austin — the 5200 block of West Chicago Avenue — and Englewood’s nexus at 63rd and Halsted streets, appeared the strongest. Reviews will determine which proposals are real.

The mayor’s signature program was a rebranding of some stuff that would have occurred anyway, but she deserves credit for funneling developers toward neglected sites and appealing to their competitive natures. Sometimes rebranding is good psychology.

Finally, for those tracking the big deals, consider that Sterling Bay expects to break ground in early 2021 on the first building at its Lincoln Yards site, a lab complex for medical researchers. Sterling Bay leads the megaprojects race.

Behind it is Related Midwest and its South Loop site known as The 78, where the state has set aside funds for a $250 million University of Illinois tech research center. Watch it, though. It’s an easily deferrable project in a budget crunch.

Need something else to look forward to? CNI’s Doig, a spark behind the Pullman revival, said he’s looking ahead to Labor Day 2021 and the dedication of the Pullman National Monument. He’d like to have President-by-then Joe Biden there with former President Barack Obama, who created the historic district, provided all can safely gather. It would celebrate the neighborhood’s place in the fight for better wages and working conditions.

After the year we’ve been through, wouldn’t that be a party?


The clock tower of the Pullman National Monument during a Labor Day groundbreaking for its renovation on Sept. 7, 2020.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

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