Bold redevelopment of Michael Reese site could be the grand slam the South Side needs

Bronzeville Lakefront will take years to complete, but it could get underway in months.

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A rendering of the proposed research and innovation center to be anchored by Israel’s Sheba Medical Center. 

A rendering of the proposed research and innovation center to be anchored by Israel’s Sheba Medical Center — part of a planned $4 billion redevelopment plan of the old Michael Reese Hospital site

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

It’s good to see a $3.8 billion plan to revitalize the largely vacant former Michael Reese Hospital site take another step forward.

A successful turnaround of the dormant Bronzeville tract could be just the kind of grand slam the South Side needs after decades of occasional base hits and some absolute strikeouts in attempts to bring transformative development south of Roosevelt Road.

The city’s Community Development Commission voted last week to sell the land to developers GRIT Chicago for $97 million. The group plans to build residences, offices, retail space and a medical research facility on the site.

The Chicago Plan Commission approved zoning for the project’s $600 million first phase in February.

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“The redevelopment of this large parcel will bring a vacant, tax-exempt site back into use,” a report from the city’s Planning Department said. “The project will serve as a catalyst for continuing development along the South Side and south lakefront.”

An albatross unleashed

The former Reese campus has long represented one of Chicago’s biggest development blunders — a 48-acre albatross the city killed and hung around its own neck in 2009 when the Daley administration paid $90 million for the site and wrecked it in a failed bid to win the 2016 Summer Olympics.

An original 1909 main hospital building was lost in the demolition, as were a nice collection of modernist structures and landscapes that had been part of the hospital’s postwar expansion.

But under the development team of GRIT Chicago, the currently barren-looking acreage bounded by 31st Street, 26th Street, the Metra Electric tracks and Vernon Avenue would blossom into a new community of 7,000 residences, 8 million square feet of office, retail, research facility space and 10 acres of parks and open space. 

Called Bronzeville Lakefront, construction on the project’s first phase could begin later this year.

The 500,000-square-foot medical research facility, called the Chicago ARC Innovation Center, is planned for the initial phase. To be operated by Israel’s Sheba Medical Center, the facility is especially intriguing given that Michael Reese Hospital was a medical pioneer in its prime.

It would be good to see some medical research firepower return to the site.

And in many respects, it’s also good that the city and developers see the building of Bronzeville Lakefront — but, gosh, that is a soulless, developer-driven name if there ever was one — as a long-term project, rather than a quick-fix development slapped up over a few seasons.

“It’s going to take a while to get this thing built; there’s a lot to do here,” Scott Goodman, managing director with GRIT partner Farpoint Development, said during a virtual town hall meeting last year.

“We think it could take up to 20 years. We hope a lot less time than that, but there will be a lot of benefit to it,” he said. “The indirect economic benefit for the entire region will be over $8 billion [over 20 years].”

Expensive, but potentially worth it

If there is a point of concern involving Bronzeville Lakefront, it’s the amount of taxpayer funds needed to help get the multibillion project to completion.

The city gets to pocket $96.9 million for selling the site but then has to shell out at least $31 million to clean up buried radioactive waste left behind by a uranium processing plant that operated on the north end from 1915 to 1920.

The city is also on the hook for $60 million to cover the cost of building new streets on the site. The Lightfoot administration said it would likely seek federal funding to help pay for the work.

Still, we look forward to seeing action. We can imagine this project becoming a catalyst for making things happen on other large and long-abandoned sites on Chicago’s South and West sides.

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