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A bold plan for Bronzeville pushes forward in hard times

We like that a large-scale, mixed-use project for the old Michael Reese Hospital site on the historically neglected South Side is going forward — and with alacrity.

A rendering of a street in the Bronzeville Lakefront Development, proposed for the South Side’s former Michael Reese Hospital site.
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

Much of Chicago is at a standstill as we fight the spread of the coronavirus, so it’s particularly encouraging to see signs of progress this week on redevelopment of the South Side’s old Michael Reese Hospital site.

On Monday, developers presented an $8 billion “Bronzeville Lakefront Development” plan at a virtual town hall meeting with 4th Ward residents and the public. There will be plenty of time over the next several months to debate the details of the developers’ vision, but for now we think it’s excellent news that a large-scale, mixed-use project on the historically disinvested South Side is moving forward — and with alacrity. The developers were set to introduce the plan to the City Council zoning committee this month, but a last-second paperwork issue has caused a delay. A city spokesman said the introduction will occur “very soon.”

It’s also pretty good news for Chicago as a whole, especially now that the city has fallen into an economic downturn that’s only expected to deepen over the months ahead.

Project ‘on the right side of history’

Bronzeville Lakefront would add new offices, residences, retail and health care facilities to a largely empty parcel of city land bounded by 31st, 26th, Vernon Avenue and Lake Shore Drive. Developers also are proposing to build on the air rights of the McCormick Place truck marshaling yard parallel to the site, between Lake Shore Drive and the Metra Electric railroad tracks.

Once zoning is approved, construction on the first $675 million phase of Bronzeville Lakefront could begin in fall 2021. New streets, sidewalks, bike paths and a 500,000 square-foot research and innovation center featuring Israel’s famed Sheba Medical Center are planned for this first phase. A larger second phase would break ground by 2025. The former Singer Pavilion, the only Michael Reese building that was spared demolition, would be reused.

Construction would begin at the south end of the site at 31st Street and work north. The phasing would allow for an environmental clean-up of a former radium extraction site near 26th Street. The city’s Department of Assets, Information and Services would oversee remediation of the radioactive site, funded by $31 million in tax increment financing.

The developers also plan to request TIF funding for infrastructure improvements and a new Metra station at 31st.

Some residents participating in the virtual town hall meeting questioned the need for a TIF subsidy — and we know that will continue to be a hotly debated part of the plan. But the request seems fair enough on first blush — a proper use of TIF funds — if the money is spent on public improvements.

Bronzeville Lakefront’s leader, Scott Goodman of Farpoint Development says 65% of the businesses within the development would be minority owned under an agreement reached with the development team, community leaders and the city — another good thing for a vastly underdeveloped and underserved side of the city.

“We think we are on the right side of history on this project,” Goodman says.

Nobody loves an albatross

The city-owned parcel of land has been a financial and real estate albatross ever since then Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration bought and leveled the former hospital site ten years ago in a famously failed bid to win the 2016 Summer Olympics.

An assortment of businesses including Amazon have passed on redeveloping the site, while the city has remained on the hook for $91 million in payments to the land’s previous owner, Medline Industries. The city still owes $59.6 million for the land.

The design of Bronzeville Lakefront’s buildings has yet to be fully developed — renderings presented so far are just conceptual — but there’s enough real estate and money on the table to support a development that has real architectural power.

Good architecture and urban planning would benefit the neighborhood and begin to heal the blow to Chicago’s architectural reputation that came when the demolition of Michael Reese wiped away a cluster of notable buildings. Forever lost were modernist structures and landscapes designed in accordance with a 1946 hospital master plan created under the guidance of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius.

We like that nine new parks are being proposed along with the new Metra station. We’d want to make sure the parks are truly public, and not developer-owned green spaces where members of the public can be shooed away on a whim.

COVID-19 is reshaping every plan and expectation for Chicago’s future. All over town, dreams are on hold. But we would hope that this project survives and pushes forward. It might even inspire renewed interest in other high-quality but long-dormant sites that are ripe for redevelopment, such as the 500-acre former US Steel South Works campus at 79th and the Lake.

Even during a pandemic, great cities make no small plans.

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