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ONE Central proposal for Chicago’s lakefront among the most creative ideas in a century

It’s just what we need right now to show the world that Chicago and Illinois are open for business. 

One Central, proposed to be developed over train tracks west of Soldier Field, would include a transit center and string of high-rise buildings.
Provided by Landmark Development

We should all be able to agree — whether Democrat or Republican, urban or rural — that 2020 was one of the most difficult years in U.S. history, bringing an unprecedented health crisis, widespread social unrest, and an economy tumbling from historic highs.

At a time like this, it is clear that the City of Chicago and State of Illinois need to execute on a strategy to improve our economy and invest in our future. History has shown that taxation and cutting government services are not the road to prosperity. Economic strength that can be sustained is driven by investment in core infrastructure that creates jobs and growth and diversity in our tax base.

Fortunately, legislation was passed in 2019 by the Illinois General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. J.B. Pritzker that enables the public sector to partner with the private sector so that we can build and grow our way out of these tough times. Economic development that leverages public and private investment in transportation is proven to build a solid foundation for fiscal stability and robust growth for the future.

This law authorizes a ONE Central public-private partnership, and it’s just what we need right now to show the world that Chicago and Illinois are “open for business.” We must demonstrate that we are ready to invest in our future with a fiscally responsible plan to build infrastructure that can strengthen our city and state.

The ONE Central public-private partnership paves the way for major new transportation improvements and transit-oriented development more innovative than anything this country has seen in over a century.

As secretary of transportation under President Barack Obama, I traveled to all 50 states. I traveled to 225 cities. I’ve looked at literally hundreds of different plans centered on transit — the infrastructure backbone that built this country. And I can say, without a doubt, that ONE Central is a first-of-its-kind and visionary model that will unlock opportunities for Chicago to be the leader, nationally and internationally, in more equitable economic development and transit infrastructure delivery.

The Landmark Development team has created a sound proposal to build over Chicago’s exposed Metra railyard at 18th Street and Lake Shore Drive. From that platform will rise a 31-acre mixed-use, urban development anchored by transit. The private developer will design, build, finance, operate and maintain, at its own risk, a multi-modal transportation hub at ONE Central that can link Metra, CTA and Amtrak systems. And there’s a plan that includes bus lanes, bike paths and pedestrian-friendy walkways, knitting together the civic and cultural assets that make Chicago one of the world’s greatest cities.

This inspired hub is certain to become the “welcome center” for the lakefront cultural district and support McCormick Place, bringing visitors from across the country and around the world to Chicago’s tourism area by transit. This new hub could boost transit ridership regionally, taking thousands of cars off the road and setting the model for urban development that will reduce pollution and carbon emissions. It provides greatly improved transit access for South Side residents and businesses. It supports tens of thousands of construction workers during development, eventually employing 70,000 permanent workers on site.

These permanent jobs will be readily accessible — via a short Metra ride — from South Side neighborhoods, helping to reduce the wealth gap and other social inequities that have become so much more evident during the pandemic; but nonetheless tragic.

This sort of transit-oriented development that creates jobs, new tax base, and a unique urban experience centered on equity must be the way of the future, and cities and states that figure this out first will set themselves apart.

Infrastructure is what made Chicago such a unique, vibrant city many years ago. If you look back at Chicago’s history, it began as a major port city on the Great Lakes, and it ultimately made Illinois one of the country’s most important transit centers as the railroads headed west.

Transit made us a powerhouse 100 years ago — the epicenter of U.S. trade and commerce.

When our children and grandchildren look back 100 years from now, it will be the cities that were transit visionaries that will be seen as world-class. With ONE Central, Illinois can become the nation’s leader in shaping the urban landscape of tomorrow.

Ray LaHood was a member of Congress, representing Illinois’ 18th District, from 1995 to 2009. He was U.S. secretary of transportation under President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2013.

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