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A new look at One Central, but the $6.5 billion ask for public subsidy is the same

Landmark Development wants taxpayers to pick up the $6.5 billion tab for a proposed transit center. We say no.

A rendering of the One Central transit hub and part of the overall development, with Soldier Field shown on the right.
A rendering of the One Central transit hub and part of the overall development, with Soldier Field shown on the right.
Gensler

The proposed developer of One Central Chicago, the megaproject planned for the Metra property west of Soldier Field, seems to be papering the town as of late with new renderings of the planned initial phase of the $20 billion effort.

The images are impressive, depicting a transit and entertainment hub featuring a series of sleek indoor and outdoor spaces devoted to restaurants, gatherings and other assorted happenings — all teeming with people and built on a 32-acre rail yard between the stadium and the Central Station development.

We like the images. But here’s one thing we don’t like: The project’s developer, Landmark Development, wants state taxpayers to ultimately buy the transit portion of the facility for $6.5 billion in 20 years.

Given the state’s perpetual shaky fiscal climate, the notion of forking over that kind of cash should’ve been run out of town on one of those nearby Metra rails when the One Chicago proposal started making the rounds two years ago.

Yet it wasn’t.

‘A transit project’

As planned, One Central would be a sprawling mix of retail and commercial buildings — some high-rise — not unlike the other giant mixed-use developments built around the city as of late, such as The 78 or Lincoln Yards,

The new wrinkle would be what Landmark Development has tagged “Civic Build,” which would include a transit center for Metra, CTA and Amtrak trains, plus a single place to catch an assortment of buses leading to destinations at the Museum Campus and McCormick Place.

That’s the part Landmark Development wants the state to buy over 20 years.

Landmark president Bob Dunn told Sun-Times reporter David Roeder last month that One Central, “at its core, [is] a transit project.”

Except none of the transit agencies that would be involved have publicly expressed full-throated support for the project.

The agencies also haven’t asked for such a combined facility — or had one in their long-term plans — before Dunn’s proposal.

This all makes us question the need for such a facility, particularly one so close to downtown where transit options already abound.

And while the Metra Electric and Indiana South Shore currently run through the proposed site, the CTA would have to incur the expense of building a spur to One Central possibly from the Green Line near the Cermak Road station more than a mile west.

Then there is the issue of state funding. Earlier this year, a spokesperson for Gov. J.B. Pritzker seemed cool to the idea.

“With the pandemic’s economic turmoil upending state budgets around the country, it would be a challenge for any state to provide the significant amount this developer is seeking,” the spokesperson said.

For what it’s worth, Metra entered an agreement with Landmark Development last month to allow the company to improve the agency’s rail yard and to make sure trains keep running if the deal goes through.

But the agency’s overall response to the project seemed tempered at best.

“While Metra is excited by the potential benefits of this development, we have taken no position on Landmark’s specific ridership, tax revenue and economic impact projections,” the commuter rail service said.

Is One Central needed?

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has been a skeptic of the need for the transit hub.

“I also told them I wasn’t certain that it would be a city priority to have a transportation hub in that location,” Lightfoot said in 2019 following a discussion with the developers.

“We have huge transportation needs all over the city,” she said.

We think her stance is correct.

In addition to the financial ask from the state, One Central also brings up larger questions about urban planning in this city.

Does Chicago need another multi-acre, multi-billion-dollar developer-driven, mixed use project built on the margins of downtown — and with a public subsidy, no less?

This is an important question to ask, but no one in power seems to be publicly asking it of One Central.

Now is the time to start.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.