Chicagoans who like to follow the doings of developers know the names of the grand visions out there.
We have Lincoln Yards on the North Side, The 78 on 62 yawning acres near Roosevelt and Clark, and the imagined thicket of high-rises next to Soldier Field in a development called One Central, an aspirational name for property more like One Off-the-Beaten Path, unless you are going to a Bears game. Someday, maybe.
To these we can add one more name for not quite a megaplan on the scale of the others but significant nonetheless and in a well-populated part of town. It’s North Union, the label bestowed by James Letchinger, founder and chief executive of JDL Development.
Letchinger said it refers to being on the Near North Side and situated to “unify” surrounding neighborhoods, such as River North and River West, the Gold Coast and Streeterville. It’s a long-term play; he figures his plan might take eight to 12 years to realize, but he’s eager to get started and raise the necessary capital. He intends to enliven blocks he views as under-utilized while also securing the next chapter for JDL.
“It’s what I look for to continue to build JDL for the next decade,” Letchinger said. His son and son-in-law now work there, so he’s thinking ahead.
Letchinger has a contract to buy eight acres from the Moody Bible Institute roughly between Wells, Chestnut and Oak streets and the CTA’s Brown Line. One parcel, a nearly square-block soccer field, runs north of Oak Street and alongside Walter Payton College Preparatory High School.
Moody Bible itself isn’t going anywhere from its base at 820 N. LaSalle St. The Christian school sold properties it deemed to be excess, some of it devoted to parking. It’s an assemblage to make developers drool.
Letchinger said he has time — he won’t say how much — to find capital partners and close the deal. Both parties in the sale declined to reveal the price. Getting the land rezoned can be a prerequisite for a developer’s financing, and Letchinger said he’s in early talks with the city about what needs to be in his eventual proposal for a planned development — a catchall zoning category that would control what happens on different parcels.
He figures he’s several weeks from showing plans to community groups and, if all goes well, at least a year from starting any construction.
“We have the opportunity to build a community,” he said, insisting that doesn’t mean loading it down with high-rises. Letchinger said he will focus mostly on rental housing in keeping with the scale of the area but might go taller, such as 50 stories, later in the development. For that, he’s got his eye on that soccer field.
Letchinger said he was up against big Chicago names vying for the Moody Bible deal —Golub, Hines, John Buck. Another bidder was Canadian firm Onni Group. Onni redeveloped the former Atrium Village at Division and Wells streets, where it has been criticized for how it treated low-income residents. The site used to be owned by churches committed to racial and economic integration.
“Thankfully, I didn’t have to outbid those others,” Letchinger said. “I doubt that anybody has more experience in this neighborhood than we do, and that resonated well with Moody Bible.”
In a letter to the campus community, Moody’s chief operating officer, Mark Wagner, said, “With JDL, we chose the best partner to develop this land and secure the necessary resources to grow our outreach and increase our educational impact. We are excited about the opportunity to establish a state-of-the-art campus better suited for the 21stcentury and further our mission, positioning us to double our impact and reach by 2030.”
Wagner said Moody retains a right to review JDL’s proposed uses for the property.
JDL’s prior work on the Near North Side is generally well regarded, and the company is in the thick of its biggest project, the two-tower complex planned on the old parking lot on Chicago Avenue across from Holy Name Cathedral.
The first tower in the One Chicago project — there’s another name — is under construction. It’s to be delivered late in 2021, when Letchinger hopes we’ll be past the pandemic, and the multifamily market will look better. “If I had to deliver those units this year, I’d be terrified,” he said.
Sensitive to criticism that he’s building only for the rich, Letchinger said he won’t need any subsidies from tax increment financing, and he’ll include a plan for affordable housing in his proposal. “We think it’s very progressive and, especially in these times, critically important,” he said.
If he follows through, he’ll be singing a tune Mayor Lori Lightfoot wants to hear.